T-films: Part Six

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That’s it (at last) for actual films beginning with T, but what is the best T-box-set? This is perhaps not the most pressing question for today, given the current glut of very decent TV series (Black Earth Rising, Bodyguard, Killing Eve, Sharp Objects, Succession), along with some older possibles I’ve already mentioned in recent articles (This is England, Top of the Lake, Trauma), and of course the parent of them all, Twin Peaks.

But you could certainly try True Detective, or at least the first series: it’s kind of broodingly atmospheric, with the standard two mismatched cops (Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson)) plus intriguing flashing back and forth, until it really comes together in episode 3: Marty’s love-life and Cohle’s existentialism, against the backdrop of serial victims and blasted, poor, rural Louisiana. And it heats up again later, as there becomes less of a mix of the present day and distant history: there’s a dramatic scene as Marty’s wife has sex with Cohle to get back at her husband (Cohle taking it as some kind of unfair assault, despite his dominant role – although to be fair he later admits that everyone has a choice). This happens in the kitchen, and is a less messy conjunction than the famous one in Rafelson’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. It’s also an interesting example of the more modern portrayal of sexual coupling: unlike the traditional missionary position, this happens in what I am led to believe is called ‘doggy-style’, which has the filmic advantage that it’s easier to see the face of each actor, and here it’s also symptomatic of the real disjunction between the characters – animalistically using each other, rather than communing in any intimate way. McConaughey really grows into his dual past-and-present role, memorably proclaiming, despite clearly being deranged, ‘I’m the person least in need of counselling in the whole fucking state’; Harrelson is reliable as ever, despite increasingly chewing his own face as the atrocities pile up. There’s Richard and Linda Thompson on the soundtrack of the penultimate episode, as the extent of the child abuse becomes clearer.

Last time one of my quiz questions was in what TV series does Jodie Whittaker play a woman impersonating a doctor? She first came properly to the attention of many of us in Broadchurch, where she faced every young mother’s nightmare – running towards the camera in slow-motion. She has of course just started starring in Doctor Who but the answer I’m looking for is Trust Me, a four-part drama in which she in fact plays a nurse impersonating a doctor. For the most part it’s reasonably compelling nonsense as long as you don’t revisit the bonkers premise – not so much that no-one would ever get away with doing this in real life, but her shaky motivation for doing so in the first place. This tends to re-emerge most strongly in the ludicrous final episode (during which for example all of the major characters are conveniently reassembled in the A&E department and which is crafted mainly to set up a sequel). Whittaker is fine, though; and Blake Harrison does some more serious acting than you might expect from him, almost as if his persona as Neil in The Inbetweeners was also an act. Decent stuff, too, from Emun Elliott as the of course most competent male doctor, Sharon Small as of course another flawed lady doctor; good debuts from Michael Abubakar and Lois Chimimba.

You could get a box-set of some recent TV work by famous playwright David Hare, including Turks And Caicos – part of a trilogy, preceded by Page Eight and followed by Salting the Battlefield. Don’t bother. Hare writes the blurb for Page Eight on IMDB himself, giving a double sense of his self-importance when he says that it ‘addresses moral dilemmas peculiar to the new century’. It doesn’t help that his vehicle for this is lovable but irredeemably one-dimensional Bill Nighy – his (lack of) range marking him out as the Terrence Stamp de nos jours – world-weary, floppy, improbably moral; a principled spy. In Turks and Caicos, lots of right-on actors and writers jet off to the Caribbean to rail against the injustices of the modern world. It’s not clear how deep Hare’s actual understanding of global business is, but he knows who he doesn’t like: however, implying as he does that the charitable foundation of a British ex-Prime Minister is a front for laundering profits from building prison camps seems so stretched that it undermines any sensible critique of torture and of profiteering from the war on terror. In Salting the Battlefield the greatest playwright of his generation – sorry, I mean the greatest spy of his generation – finally brings down this Blair-like figure by revealing (rather as a playwright might) the dodgy funding of the foundation. Thank goodness for the press and the security services! Except of course this wish-fulfilment didn’t happen, and continuing to focus on the imagined betrayals committed by Hare’s personal historic hate-figure ignores much worse things that are happening in the present. Whatever pulse Hare once had his finger on, the body is long dead: his Collateral, which again grandiloquently sees itself as presenting ‘the state of the nation’, is just as bad. With such a distinguished writer and the excellent actors that feature in his series, you’d think the BBC would be on to a sure-fire winner: but they all score below 7 on IMDB and the irony is that they are fall down precisely because of the misjudged stories and poor scripts. But by all means make your own mind up – I’m sitting on the fence, as you can see.

My other quiz question last time asked you where this line comes from – ‘You want to have your cake and eat it and fuck the baker too’? It’s The Tunnel.

Now, you may be one of the people lucky enough never to have seen this, thinking perhaps that it is likely to be a pale imitation of Scandi noir box-set The Bridge (which you’ve never seen either, or alternatively don’t want to watch again translated into an Anglo-French setting). If so, you have a real treat in store. Not only is it better than Bodyguard, which in some respects it resembles, it’s on a par with Line of Duty in sustaining its excellence over three series; and the last one gives you the satisfaction of knowing that the makers knew when to stop.

The first series of The Tunnel is indeed a close remake, but a very effective one, of the first series of The Bridge – the severed body here is discovered halfway through the Channel Tunnel, rather than on the bridge between Denmark and Sweden. It’s enlivened by Keeley Hawes (last seen vaporised in Bodyguard), by Liz Smith, and by one of the French policemen (Thibault de Montalembert) looking like Roger Allam. A real strength here is the quality of those playing bit-parts: the creepy charity worker played by Joseph Mawle, who went on to The Last Panthers, Ripper Street, and Game of Thrones; Paul Ready off Motherland and, indeed, Bodyguard plays the weird Good Samaritan-cum-bad samurai warrior (Kill Bill it ain’t); Adeel Aktar from Utopia is the minibus driver; the newspaper editor is Nigel Lindsay, maybe most familiar from Alan Partridge or perhaps Unforgotten (although he seems to specialise in this sort of thing and so is also in the recent mini-series Innocent and Safe); and the excellent Anastasia Hille (from Not Safe for Work) is the scary MI5 officer. What makes it, though, is mainly Clémence Poésy (who was also in Birdsong and In Bruges), who is great as the autistic French detective Elise: ‘how are your testicules?’ she makes herself enquire of her English oppo Karl Roebuck after he suffers a particularly bruising encounter, having no doubt been told that normal people of your acquaintance, and particularly normal English people, expect to be greeted with an enquiry about their health. The cake-and-eat-it line is hers, in reference to Roebuck’s infidelity (she herself has a straightforward sex life with her baffled fuck-buddy, contacting him when she feels like it and sending him away again when they’ve finished). Roebuck is played by Stephen Dillane, a kind of underdeveloped Mark Rylance: he’s the weaker of the two but just about carries it off, and grows in confidence in the later series. His wife Laura is played by Angel (sic) Coulby, who also features in other work for TV like Dancing on the Edge and Undercover, and indeed Innocent).

The Bridge had such a distinctive sense of place, and much of the charm of The Tunnel lies in the evocation of littoral environs either side of the Channel: this is underpinned by the use of some great locations in the closing episodes of the first series. But what marks it out overall is the terrific control of the narrative and the sense of tension at acute points – a small example is the end of episode 4 where you don’t know which location has the terrorist, and then you do and it’s the one where there’s no back-up; more generally, by episode five, halfway through, you begin really to admire the repeated introduction of apparently unconnected yet immediately compelling plot lines that launch the next phase (the constant coups do require a more than usually improbable storyline, although it can’t be that far-fetched since it all happened in Scandinavia too). As it approaches the climax it’s fairly clear what’s been going on but it all clicks into place and ratchets rapidly in episode 9 and we learn that villain Keiron Ashton is after Roebuck’s family and has been all the time, and is still one step ahead. However spectacular the booby-trap Laura finds herself in, it’s still just a diversion since Ashton is really after Roebuck’s son … . This leads up to a Star Wars-like final confrontation on a walkway, and one familiar trope (the cop declining to murder the suspect) takes its place alongside something bolder (there’s no happy ending, as the missing son is revealed quite simply as being dead all along).

Throughout there’s a subtle depiction of the rather loose commitment the Roebucks, both previously divorced, have to each other, and a nice difference in how they treat their kids as opposed to their step-kids. Generally the series avoids the pitfalls of clunkiness that can come from a bi-lingual approach – it’s actually another huge plus. But there is one Clouseau moment as Mme Joubert explains that she could have forgiven her suicide husband for feurcking his mistress. At the end, you just want to see the next series – and not only to see whether it can survive a less close derivation from the original source.

In fact the second series (The Tunnel: Sabotage) starts rather delightfully. There’s good dialogue again: when someone says to Roebuck ‘You’re a clever c**t’, he wittily retorts ’You’re halfway there yourself’, and we’re clear which half he means. (This is similar to the joke made by one-time Watford football manager Aidy Boothroyd: ‘We need to perfect the art of playing badly and winning. We’re halfway there already.’)

The characteristic narrative surprises keep coming throughout – the disappearance of the parents in the tunnel, the plane sabotage, the murders at the religious retreat; a shootout, a plunging body, a police station siege; the dumping of a poisoned body on the dock, proclaiming ‘bring out your dead’; exquisite tension over a poisoned cheroot … . Although the strands about a by-election and fracking verge at times on the tokenistic, the MI5/6 angle is well done: the spook characters are believable, as is their turning a blind eye to other crime, however vile, to focus on incoming jihadists. Again the sub-plots about the emotional lives of the soapy characters fill things out nicely alongside the spectacular plot – the state of Karl’s marriage, the unresolved issues about his infidelity and the death of his son; Elise’s lost twin and the emergence of some emotional intelligence and capacity for love in her, cruelly threatened when suspicion rightly falls on her new lover; not to mention Julie, the sweet French constable.

This all keeps us happily going along with it until a nice sixth episode brings it to the boil, identifying Lionel Messi (Paul Schneider) as the real villain, the son of a vengeful imprisoned arms dealer who is using a freelance psychopath for mass murder. Eryka Klein and the Chile connection to the CIA and to the evil Mengele-like doctor stretches things a bit, and the strand about Karl’s history as an undercover cop seems a little throwaway until it becomes clear that it’s to keep Ashton from series 1 in play and perhaps up their sleeve for series 3. With the death of the arms dealer it loses a bit of complexity as everyone moves on to the same side, but the climax is competent enough and is heightened by the degree of our emotional investment in the characters. Good performances again by Poésy and Dillane and Coulby, but also from Emilia Fox and William Ash as BB, the cop from a Polish background – you hope he’ll be in the next series 3, which by this time you might find it hard not to go straight on to and binge all the way through.

In series 3 (The Tunnel: Vengeance) BB is not in fact to the fore early doors (and the villain from series 1 Ashton doesn’t reappear at all). What you do get is the familiar shock stuff straightaway – dead children, a man with his tongue chopped out, etc.. Plus new characters in the shape of a business-like senior English cop (played by Felicity Montagu (Alan Partridge’s agent Lynn)) and Elise’s smooth new boss Chris Morris (actually Valentin Merlet). It toys with standard horror tropes (rats; someone inside the house), but stays with its strengths – the life-struggles of the principals, the liminal, waters’-edge setting, the related themes of similarity and difference, migrants and natives (that the missing refugee children should replace the comfortable English ones in their beds is nice touch), and an overarching criminal mastermind conceit in the shape of the Pied Piper. Again multiple story-lines play out, indeed including the apparently ill-fated BB; Karl’s continuing grief over his son, his separation and his relationship with his step-daughter; office politics and Elise’s humiliation at work and her bad teeth; a solid depiction of police work; and humour (‘excuse my French,’ says the French policeman after the subtitles have revealed his strong language in his native tongue).

After a truly scary sequence as Elise loosens up after self-administering drugs, and a good bit of Proustian memories as the child recaptures the past with the help of ice-cream, the closing episodes remind us just what’s so good about this franchise. Episode 5 is a classic: just as the many strands should all be coming together we get new disappearances of a mother, a dog walker, a wife, etc., alongside the curious experiences of a meat deliverer, characteristically and confidently introducing new, intriguing, well-seeded and superbly controlled threads that are in fact a key part of the way the narrative is coalescing, combining the procedural with the deranged while showing the British what the lives of refugees are like. It is the comfortable residents of Folkestone who are now in the meat truck like the asylum seekers from Eastern Europe, prey to a vengeful predator just as her son was to traffickers who are in turn paralleled by European paedophiles. It builds up again our deep feelings for the main characters so that Elise’s disappearance is as troubling to us as it is to Karl; so that Karl’s loss of his son is a prism through which can be seen from various angles the theft, the loss, and the adoption of one East European child and the abduction of a French one (just as Karl is losing sight of his step-daughter going off the rails). If the stand-off in the final episode makes you realize that the criminality is a little far-fetched, however deep the mother’s grief, the show is confident enough to sustain it (with Elise now booby-trapped in a suicide vest and Karl given the opportunity to save the Folkstone eleven if he blows her up), pausing amid the dramatic tension so that you yourself have time to wonder not just what he’ll do and what the dramatic way round it will be, but what you’d do in a similar circumstance, given his and indeed your emotional connection to her. Then, well before the end, the star is simply blown up, as shockingly as Psycho killed off Marion Crane so early (and the more so since BB (and even the sweet Julie from series 2) are allowed to survive).

Jed Mercurio got a lot of plaudits for killing off Keeley Hawes’s character early in Bodyguard (he had done the same to her in series 3 of Line of Duty). This transgressed our narrative (and commercial) assumptions so much that many viewers wondered whether somehow she really could be still alive, and here too in The Tunnel, like Karl, we keep looking about, expecting to see that she has miraculously survived. We move on to a climax which is explicitly compared to Thelma and Louise, but the final dénouement would be a little short of genuine heft were it not for the poignant portrayal of the survivors, BB’s happy ending with Juliette Navis from Insyriated, and, in particular, Karl’s grief added to our own for Elise as a character and a person and for The Tunnel as a whole, since it clearly could never be the same without her. Sometimes, though, the knowledge that there can’t be another sequel, even of something so good, is strangely satisfying (like when, perhaps, you come to the end of innumerable blogs about things to watch beginning with T).

And today’s quiz question? Blaire, Mitch, and the dead girl Laura Barns – not the Eyes of Laura Mars, or Twin Peaks, or Blair Witch Project, but what U-film?