Hugo Blick’s new Middle East thriller weaved two whodunnits around the most intractable political issue of the day, but can we really trust anyone?
Who is your favourite British TV auteur? Mine is Hugo Blick. David Hare is too mannered and stagey; Peter Kosminsky too scattergun and provocative; Stephen Poliakoff too slow and self-indulgent. Blick sits in that sweet spot between the three, so this new eight-parter is among the most exciting TV events of the year (pace the World Cup). The opener didn’t disappoint, weaving not one but two whodunnits – the suicide/murder of Samir Meshal and kidnap of Kasim – around the most intractable political issue of the day (it could hardly feel more timely) and the life of the woman in the middle. Let’s just hope it’s not all about pensions, eh?
The Empty Chair
Even the episode title was weighted with foreboding. This is TV to work at, certainly, but it is a treat to sit through, rather than a chore – the difference between indulgent and self-indulgent. Just about the only thing Blick makes explicit is to take nothing at face value. “It’s a wonder we trust anyone at all,” you say? Duly noted. Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is seemingly attempting to resolve the Middle East peace process single-handedly by redirecting the wealth of her late father from arms dealing to a charitable foundation, and to the laying of communication cables in the West Bank. The suspicious death of her favoured business partner piques the interest of MI6, led by Stephen Rea’s soon-to-retire spook, Hugh Hayden-Doyle. And then young Kasim is kidnapped, apparently at the second attempt. Nessa gives chase in vain, perhaps costing her bodyguard (Tobias Menzies) his life. That, on the surface, is that. And yet …
Skeletons spill out of the Stein family closet. There’s Nessa and Atika, the family nanny apparently abducted in the Gaza Strip some years earlier. “They will never find out – I promise,” says Atika as Nessa’s exterior crumbles at their secret rendezvous. And thank goodness. Too good to be true up to that point, Nessa instantly became far more intriguing, her fragile psyche further emphasised by her use of a panic room. And she seems rather more fond of her mother than her father, judging by her response to the home movies.
Nessa’s brother and sister-in-law, Ephra and Rachel, look miserable even as another child is on the way. (“It’s my job, Ephra, keeping secrets – yours is perfectly safe,” promises MI6’s Eve Best.) Katherine Parkinson, incidentally, doesn’t have much to work with yet with the profoundly unsympathetic Rachel. She must have her reasons. And, speaking of children, can it be that Kasim’s parents are Ephra and Atika? Ephra refers to “my own kid”; Atika calls herself “mummy”. The trailer certainly suggests a fling, either in the past or the present. With Kasim snatched, this feels significant.
The Shadow Line gave us one of the great TV chase sequences, as Rafe Spall hunted Chiwetel Ejiofor across east London. This was shorter but still packed a punch, filmed in the crepuscular manner of the great 1970s conspiracy thrillers. Only its denouement felt like a sop to convention: man appears out of nowhere then stands motionless while being shot.
At least spies are supposed to talk in riddles. Hugh (once married to Lindsay Duncan’s Angelica – a power couple to reckon with) is on his last case, and he is determined to leave it “empty”. (But why not “closed”? Deliciously unexpected semantics, or something more significant?). His world already feels more plausible and immediate than the rarified one of a Johnny Worricker. The smoke-filled rooms still exist and the gnomic conversations between rival spies over games of chess still take place, but it’s a way of life on the retreat.
Interesting too that Blick seems keen to juxtapose Nessa and Hugh: first the Radiohead montage of powerful figures leading lonely lives, then the twin meetings where one loses control while the other maintains it. And Rea was on magnificent form. The exchanges about the shoes and about the fingerprints on the envelope were serious issues disguised by Rea’s drily funny delivery. Hugh looks like a man determined to enjoy his final moments in the job that has quite clearly been his life.
The honour roll
So, just how honourable is this woman? Well, Nessa has just been made Baroness Stein of Tilbury (!), so technically you can’t get more honourable than that. And she makes all the right conciliatory noises in public. But in private, there’s a mysterious secret – just how guilty it is, remains to be seen.
In the debit column: she blew bits of paper at her brother while at the dinner table! Dastardly behaviour by any standards. And she dumped family friend Shlomo (jovial, menacing Igal Naor), although apparently for sound reasons, as his dealings were indirectly funding Hezbollah. In the balance, then.
Does anyone perceive Blick taking sides? I thought he walked a difficult tightrope with real skill. Calling for equality of opportunity with the statement: “Terror thrives in poverty. It dies in wealth,” felt powerful without being contentious.
That gaze to camera at the end: is Atika in on the kidnap?
Does anyone else think Hugh’s second-in-command looks a bit like Richard Bacon? Could this be his post-Five Live nest egg?
Notes and observations
• The opening credits were very post-Homeland: quick cuts, oblique images and whispered dialogue.
• The pseudonyms used by Nessa and Hugh as they arrived for their rendezvous were intriguing. I’m none the wiser as to why she signed in as “E Richardson”, but suspect his “George Cumming” may be a cute nod to two of his predecessors: George Smiley and Mansfield Cumming.
• Nice to see the return of three familiar faces from The Shadow Line: Rea, Best and Menzies. What odds the three of them making it through to the end?
• Nessa’s opening speech was perceptively crafted – the words of a born diplomat.
• Has an American ever delivered a more consistently on-point English accent? Even the retching had a cut-glass quality to it.
• It’s another real looker from Blick: stunning compositions mixed with surveillance-style camerawork.
• John Humphrys made a very convincing John Humphrys.
• I tend to share Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s take on montages, but thought this one really worked. It nudged the characterisation along while deepening and thickening the atmosphere. How to Disappear Completely? It’s a trick you feel Nessa and Hugh would love to master.