Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Shadow Line

There are several spoilers here.  Don't read if you're intending to watch the series.

We've watched a British series on DVD over the last week or so.  It's called The Shadow Line, and it was exceptionally gripping.  But also very nasty, and ultimately somewhat unsatisfying, as it killed off the one character who had integrity, and left the villains in charge. There was a point to this, which I'll come to in due course, but after having watched the villains do damage to all and sundry throughout the piece it was disappointing to see them getting away with it still further.

The piece has two stories running in parallel (over seven lengthy episodes), but both intersect at a number of points, and both have come about as a result of something that happened before the story began. The first episode opens with what seems a prolonged look at a dead body in a car.  Two police officers have 'discovered' the body, and the more talkative and more-knowing of the two (David Schofield) seems to have his own peculiar agenda. He plainly knows more than he's letting on, though he gives away a number of hints to the viewer.

We're then introduced to Detective Inspector Jonah Gabriel (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his working partner, Detective Sergeant Lia Honey (Kierston Wareing). The latter is a smart-mouthed, very competent cop, who's not entirely pleased to be working with Gabriel, who, as a result of being shot in the head (the bullet is still lodged in his skull) has had a loss of memory as to what he was doing the night he was shot.

Gabriel's is the main story, and he's the character with integrity, and a passion for the truth. Curiously, as so often happens with characters in modern films who have integrity, he has had a mistress with whom he's had a child - his own wife has had several miscarriages, but is hoping for one last chance at pregnancy. In the film Gabriel - to his credit - anguishes over the fact that he's never revealed the presence of this other woman, and their son, to his wife. At least in that regard he's better than the leading character in Judge John Deed, another series we've been watching, where Deed, the judge who's shown as having enormous integrity on the justice side of things, consistently plays around with various women, including his former wife, his current lady friend, and several others.

The parallel character to Gabriel is soon introduced: Joseph Bede (Christopher Eccleston). He's a wholesale flower seller - on a big scale - and is using his business as a front for drug smuggling. Also on a big scale.  Supposedly he's built up the flower business primarily as a cover for a one-off big deal that will set him up for life, and will enable him to provide constant care for his wife, who has early onset Alzheimer's. But one of the problems with the drugs game, as we see time and again in this story, is that it's a cruel master: Bede finds himself increasingly trapped inside his plan. Several others, both big and small, also come to grief before the series has finished, most of them violently.

The series may be intended to highlight the impossibility of surviving the drugs game (more than one character talks about 'just surviving', and one of the nastiest (Rafe Spall, always on the verge of insanity) says realistically, in the last episode, how he's probably only got twenty years before he'll wind up the same way as all the others), and it's plain that those who have made the big time in drugs live under the tension of being overtaken by the next villain to come along, and plainly don't enjoy the fruits of their labours.

However, this is countermanded by the fact that the corrupt police in the series, of whom there are several, seem to manage to live above the law, and thrive. Their involvement in drugs began as something that was seen as a good, but was achieved by the wrong means. Then the 'rewards' have taken over their lives and they've gone back to the trough time and again. And the chief of these, a man called Gatehouse, (Stephen Rea, in a most chilling performance), manages to manipulate and pull strings and survive assaults, like the devil himself.  He's perhaps the most improbable character, when you reflect on it all, yet Rea gives him such life and personality that you come to believe he could exist. He's utterly treacherous, blatantly murderous, and convinced of his own ability to twist everything  and everyone to his ends, even those who appear to be honest.

The story is utterly convoluted, and has several shocking moments, as well as some we can see coming. Almost no one is who they seem, apart from Gabriel, and he worries a good deal (since he has this memory issue with a very important event) that he may not be the honest man he hopes he is. The curious thing is that even the evil ones tell him he is honest, and that gets up their nose. He's the only one to make Gatehouse think he might have mis-stepped at one point, and that's some achievement.

Hugo Blick wrote the script, and directed and produced the series. (Blick has also been an actor.)  This is a major achievement, because he has filled the series with vivid characters and cast some of the best in the business in the roles. Yes, there are some moments in the story when coincidences pile up a little too high, but the tension created and maintained throughout is extraordinary - I could feel my own nerves on edge during one particular episode - and he continually keeps us guessing as to who is really who.  Some apparently good characters aren't, and some of the evil ones appear to have their moments of sincerity.

Blick's direction can be mannered - but then the best film noir directors are always mannered. That's one of the things that makes these films what they are. A great deal of the time is spent in darkness, or night, or shadows, but even when we venture out into daylight, there's a sinister feel to what we're seeing. We know, for instance, that the journalist on his motorcycle won't make it home, and this is assisted a couple of scenes before by seeing him standing in front of a full-sized photo of T E Lawrence - with his motorbike. But then Blick takes advantage of what we guess by first giving us the journalist and his motorbike a near miss, and then having him vanish into a dip in the road, while a car heads towards him. Nothing happens on the screen for a moment, there's an ominous thump, then the car quietly reappears out of the dip and proceeds. The motorcycle doesn't reappear. Finally we're taken down into the dip to see the journalist incongruously sitting on the road, dying, his bike splattered across the road, and worse, that large farm vehicle he just missed a few minutes before sounds as though it's heading his way. It's a grisly scene, but all done without any bells and whistles, and in spite of our realisation that it's going to be happen, we're still shocked.

Several other scenes shock in different ways. Gatehouse makes his way into at least three houses at different times, and on each occasion we think he's going to murder someone. Nothing ever quite happens as we expect, so that when the actual murders happen, we don't have high-pitched strings playing on the soundtrack to prematurely warn us; the murders come almost out of the blue. When he comes to Peter Glickman's son's house (Glickman is his opposite number in the story, and is absent until about half way through the series) and threatens the man's wife, the whole thing takes on a craziness via a baby monitor that we misunderstand at first. The baby is unharmed, the woman is hysterical - but unharmed - and the only disaster is the dinner burning on the stove, an echo of the soup burning after the murder of the young pregnant mother earlier on.

Then there's the confrontation between Glickman and Gatehouse, in a Dublin clock shop. It has Hitchcock written all over it, right to the point of the explosion that demolishes the place, but not the two villains. (Hitchcock is everywhere through the series, in fact, and is frequently himself put in the shade by Blick's trickery.)  And the near disposal of Gatehouse in the hospital by Glickman's mistress - at least that who she appeared to be until she stabbed Glickman to death - much to our surprise.  This hospital scene is improbable; firstly because we know they say Gatehouse has the heart of a 20-year-old, but he is actually in his sixties and shouldn't have withstood being blown up and shot twice; and secondly how does he know he's about to be done in by the mistress and what method she's going to use?  Where is the policeman outside the door (yup, that's kind of explained later) and how come the nurse doesn't see or hear anything?  Once again Blick turns our expectations on their heads.  If for no other reason than his ability to undercut what we think will happen, Blick should be congratulated for a masterly series.

I didn't like some of the things that happened in it, but it was gripping viewing!

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