It almost feels like a recommendation of Deadwater Fell should come with a disclaimer: the first episode of this series is unnerving, desperately sad and rarely offers respite from its overwhelming sense of dread. For that reason, it inevitably won’t be pleasing to everyone’s tastes, but fans of dark crime drama will find it hard not to be reeled in by this complex and fascinating mystery.
Deadwater Fell unravels the story behind a terrible tragedy in a sleepy Scottish village called Kirkdarroch, unfolding from the perspectives of two couples. Local GP Tom Kendrick (David Tennant) and his wife, primary school teacher Kate (Anna Madeley), have three daughters and are well-liked members of their small community. They are close friends with fellow teacher Jess (Cush Jumbo) and police officer Steve (Matthew McNulty), who awake one night to see the Kendrick residence in flames.
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Rushing to the scene, Steve enters the burning house but is unable to save Kate or the three young girls, making Tom the only survivor. In the wake of the incident, evidence emerges that suggests the fire was not an accident and a formal police investigation begins.
While Deadwater Fell might initially sound like another case of “disposable woman” in the crime genre, writer Daisy Coulam deserves recognition for elevating the character of Kate above such a trope. Though her death occurs early in this first episode, she remains a consistent presence throughout due to an unconventional narrative structure that frequently jumps backward in time. This allows her to feel like a fully realised and compelling character in her own right rather than merely a plot device, which is also helped by Madeley’s superb performance in the role.
Coulam’s script puts fresh, contemporary spins on other patches of well-trodden ground too, with one such area being the co-parenting relationship between Jess, Steve and his ex-wife Sandra (Lisa McGrillis). While it is by no means perfect and prone to some bickering, this portrayal of the now common set-up dispenses with a token villain in favour of the more grounded portrayal of three adults who are simply trying to do their best for the children they are caring for.
Deadwater Fell also shines a spotlight on IVF treatment, a method of conception that many couples undergo but unfortunately doesn’t have a particularly high success rate. Rather than being awkwardly shoehorned in somewhere, the inclusion of this subplot feels completely natural and is given just the right amount of attention, becoming even quite profound in the aftermath of the opening episode’s child fatalities.
Of course, while this script is exceptionally strong, it wouldn’t pack anywhere near the same punch without the excellent cast assembled to perform it. Jumping back and forth in time, we get to see the four main characters at their best and their worst, encompassing a full emotional range that allows us detailed insight into each of their personalities and relationships.
The aforementioned Madeley is a definite standout as Kate, whose frustration at trying to be all things to all people is utterly compelling. She steals a pivotal scene set during a day out on the beach, which concisely encapsulates the pressure of family life.
If the central mystery of Deadwater Fell is to be whether Tom committed the unspeakable crime or not, casting David Tennant in the role was a smart move indeed. Time and time again he proves himself capable of playing personable and charming just as well as he does menacing and antagonistic, with this being no exception. His performance here is so subtle that by the end of the first episode he remains a thoroughly enigmatic figure who seemingly could go either way.
McNulty gives a heartbreaking turn as police officer Steve, who Coulam uses to explore themes of toxic masculinity. He takes on the burden of responsibility for the deaths of Kate and her three girls, when in reality he tried as hard as he possibly could to save them. While Deadwater Fell presents an extreme example, the pressure that many men put themselves under is an important real-life issue to feature, one that is sadly reflected in male suicide rates around the world.
Last but not least, Jumbo is at the centre of this story in the role of Jess, whose intimate links with each of the other three lead characters give her a unique perspective on the terrible incident. Much like Tom, she’s a character of moral ambiguity, showing admirable loyalty to her late friend Kate but harbouring secrets that put her actions in a different light.
Special mention must go to both Lynsey Miller’s direction and Natalie Holt’s score, which together bring a sombre eeriness to Deadwater Fell that effectively gets under the skin. As the ambient strings rise on another slow pan shot, you really feel the weight of every second that passes by on-screen.
When a series comes along that is fraught with so much mystery, it is difficult to predict from the outset whether or not it will stick the landing. However, the first episode of Deadwater Fell gives no cause for concern. It’s a tightly written piece of television that sets up a number of fascinating characters and plot threads, anchored by terrific performances across the board.
Deadwater Fell begins on Friday 10th January 2020 at 9pm on Channel 4