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Inside Man review: A dark, gripping thriller which earns its secrecy

Moffat's latest work is a stunning showcase for David Tennant.

BBC/Hartswood/Paul Stephenson
Published: Thursday, 22nd September 2022 at 5:47 pm
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It's fair to say that Inside Man arrives with some fairly lofty expectations - not only because of creator Steven Moffat's own pedigree, or even the immensely talented and widely popular cast he has assembled.

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No, it's also because, ahead of release, it's an absolute mystery. We know some of the character details – David Tennant is playing a vicar – and we know the basic locations – with Stanley Tucci's Jefferson Grieff in an American prison on death row. But that's it.

While all this secrecy can be frustrating, it also helps to build that anticipation, as you have to assume there's a very good reason for it. Well, rest assured - there is, and we certainly won't be ruining that here.

Inside Man is a devilishly, deliciously dark piece of drama, hinging on a string of catastrophically bad decisions made throughout the first episode. Audible gasps could be heard at an early screening ahead of its BBC One premiere, and it's easy to imagine that effect being replicated nation-wide, even for those who see the impending doom coming.

David Tennant as Harry Watling in Inside Man.
David Tennant as Harry Watling in Inside Man BBC/Hartswood/Kevin Baker

If you've been paying attention then the 'reveal' may be semi-predictable by the time it arrives, but that doesn't lessen its effect. Because it's less about what is made known, and more about how things transpire, the gradual build-up of tension to the point where you can see what's going to occur and are yelling at your TV in desperation for it not to.

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This is down to two things - some incredibly tight, dramatic writing from Moffat, and some undeniably brilliant performances, particularly from Tennant.

The fact that he's so engaging in this is not at all surprising. Viewers have known for years that he's one of the most talented actors working in TV, and here he proves it once again with a delightfully complex character.

In fact, all of the central cast bring their A-game to the series. Dolly Wells is magnificent in her frequently-surprising role of Janice, while Lydia West perhaps has the least to do but still brings a welcome strength and decency to this cast of deeply troubled characters. Which brings us neatly on to Stanley Tucci...

Stanley Tucci as Jefferson Grieff in Inside Man.
Stanley Tucci as Jefferson Grieff in Inside Man. BBC/Hartswood/Kevin Baker

There are two central plot strands at play in the series, with one focussing on Tennant's vicar, the other on Tucci's death row inmate. There's no denying Tucci's is the less gripping of the two, and the less narratively propulsive. However, it's to the show's strength that the two never feel of a separate world - they mesh surprisingly neatly.

And when it comes to Tucci himself, he is, of course, phenomenal. In lesser hands Grieff could be a character we've seen before, a darker version of Sherlock making big assumptions and outsmarting those around him, while showing an indifference towards social niceties. But he's such a distinctive and charismatic actor that every scene with him remains captivating.

That's not to say Inside Man is perfect. It takes a while to build up and the first episode can feel clunky at times as the plot gets into gear and the characters have to behave in slightly outlandish ways to move it forward.

The dialogue is also typically Moffat - for better or worse. At the start of episode 1, and even after some of the darker elements of the story have kicked in, all of the characters are quipping. At one point Harry is described as a "funny vicar" but in truth any of these characters could be described that way in the first episode - there's a funny maths tutor, a funny journalist, even a funny murderer.

Lydia West as Beth Davenport in Inside Man.
Lydia West as Beth Davenport in Inside Man BBC/Hartswood/Kevin Baker

There's also a whole lot of verbal and intellectual sparring going on. There's a line in the trailer in which Tucci's Grieff says: "Everyone is a murderer, you just have to meet the right person". It's not a one-off - there's a lot of grand, slightly comical statements on big topics, from crime, to religion, to morality.

However, all of these quibbles aside there's no denying that Inside Man is engaging television, and having seen further episodes beyond the series opener, that doesn't let up. In fact, as things progress and the story becomes more clearly defined, it's very much to the series' benefit. Episode 2 feels like a step up and is well worth sticking around for, even if you're unconvinced by the first.

That's perhaps Moffat's greatest trick here - keeping the tension ratcheting up even when you think it's reached its peak, with another twist always around the corner. And with so little known about the series ahead of time, that means there's a whole lot of surprises in store.

Inside Man is coming to BBC One and BBC iPlayer on Monday 26th September. Check out more of our Drama coverage or visit our TV Guide to see what's on tonight.

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