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The Control Room review: Iain De Caestecker wows in anxiety-filled thriller

Iain De Caestecker excels in this anxiety-inducing thriller, which at times holds its cards too close its chest.

Iain De Caestecker in The Control Room.
Hartswood Films, Anne Binckebanck, BBC
Published: Tuesday, 12th July 2022 at 9:00 am
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A star rating of 4 out of 5.

Anyone who's seen Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D will know that there is absolutely nobody who can steal a scene with pure, unadulterated stress quite like Iain De Caestecker. The Scottish actor managed to steal that entire show by being in what seemed like perpetual, dazzling trauma, as the writers poked and prodded at his character for seven seasons.

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It's therefore no wonder that he would be cast in The Control Room as Gabe, a man whose nerves are frayed and whose heart-rate appears to be off the scale in this anxiety-inducing, fast-paced thriller.

In the three-part miniseries, Gabe is an emergency call handler who, while on the job, receives a call from a woman in distress who appears to know him from his past, setting him off on a quest to find her.

To say almost anything more about the plot would be at risk of spoiling it, such is the show's delight at concealing its multiple twists and turns. It's a tactic which works wonders at the start of the series but occasionally reaches the point of frustration midway through.

Gabe (Iain De Caestecker) in The Control Room.
Gabe (Iain De Caestecker) in The Control Room Hartswood Films, Anne Binckebanck, BBC

But first, what works – Iain De Caestecker. The man is absolutely electric on screen, selling every heightened emotion, every level of fear or hope or anger that Gabe is feeling as his world crumbles apart around him.

In a lesser actor's hands Gabe could easily be grating and self-pitying. But De Caestecker humanises him, to the extent that we understand his worst impulses, celebrate his victories and commiserate with him as his hardships intensify. He's long been an actor who, despite some high profile roles, still often feels unforgivably overlooked. Here's to hoping this is where he finally gets his due and is recognised for this truly impressive work.

The series is also a thriller which truly lives up to the name. There is no word to describe what happens in these three hours other than thrilling. It's a show which nails its colours to the mast and shouts "strap in" before jetting off through twist after twist and some unbearably intense encounters.

It then matches this with its visuals, giving even that which could seem magical, like a Christmas tree, an aura of grime and foreboding that can't be shaken off. The series spends surprisingly little time in the titular control room, instead making good use of Glasgow's streets and surrounding countryside and giving a real sense of place, while also helping to sell the taut nature of the piece.

All this makes its an atmospheric and compelling watch, with any other qualms tempered by its sheer entertainment value.

Gabe (Iain De Caestecker) and Sam (Joanna Vanderham) in The Control Room.
Gabe (Iain De Caestecker) and Sam (Joanna Vanderham) in The Control Room Hartswood Films, Jamie Simpson, BBC

However... that doesn't mean the series is perfect, and it's in its mystery that the series somewhat falls down. Not because it has an unsatisfying conclusion – in fact the final major twist is remarkably rewarding. It heightens the drama, is totally unexpected and yet feels absolutely earned; the benefit of a writer who seems to have known their answers before asking the questions.

No, it's because of the show's repeated unwillingness to let viewers in on its secrets in a timely manner. Episode two is the prime offender, as the charm of the initial puzzle box has worn off but it still seems reluctant to reveal anything. It can be hard to believe in certain relationships because we haven't been let in on their foundations, or tricky to understand why we should care.

Joanna Vanderham's character Sam is a particular casualty of this. She's too mysterious for her own good, and once certain reveals are made, the remnants of the drama have to play catch-up to this new information.

This problem is heightened because of the show's structure. Each episode features a hefty dose of childhood flashbacks, a narrative device which always needs to serve a purpose, yet here largely chooses atmosphere over illumination, repeatedly slowing down the otherwise propulsive action.

Anthony (Daniel Portman) in The Control Room.
Anthony (Daniel Portman) in The Control Room Hartswood Films, Anne Binckebanck, BBC

The rest of the cast put in sterling work with limited screen-time. Daniel Portman gets the most to do, in a role which is magnificently jarring for those who know him as Game of Thrones' Podrick.

And then there's the resolution, the key to any mystery-thriller's success. Thankfully, I can report that it holds up. Once all the twists are done and secrets are out in the open, it may be a somewhat smaller scale ending than viewers come to expect, given the ever increasing stakes throughout the episodes.

But in its final moments, the show chooses to focus on its emotional through-line and its characters, rather than explosive action or a shocking last-minute bait and switch – an easy decision to defend and one which may help The Control Room to stand out amongst the crowd.

The Control Room will air on BBC One from Sunday 17th July at 9pm, with all episodes then available on BBC iPlayer. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our TV Guide or visit our dedicated Drama hub for the latest news.

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