Fear: Silent Witness S15E11+12 (Review)

While Fear does address a controversial and provocative issue with Silent Witness’ usual intelligence and brutal realism, it is rather wibbly-wobbly in terms of structure and writing; and at the episode’s close, leaves you wondering precisely what you’ve just experienced in a way that has nothing to do with the deliberate engagement of an audience’s bewilderment.

Jodie Comer as Eve.

Jodie Comer as Eve.

Following his break-up with Janet, an awful-looking Leo is press-ganged into taking some time off by Nikki and unwilling fellow-conspirator Harry (both once again rather lamentably under-represented in the proceedings) and ends up with his friend Sean, the psychiatrist who treated him following the deaths of his wife and child. Leo soon discovers that Sean is wrestling with the death of fifteen year old Eve, a pro-bono patient with whom he shared a deep bond (in an entirely non-creepy way) and whose death has been put down to Long QT Syndrome, a heart condition that is undetectable post mortem, leading to Sean himself refusing treatment for cancer. As a result of a subsequent deal between the two men that Sean will seek treatment if Leo investigates Eve’s death, Leo is soon half-drowning in a sea of Catholic guilt and violent family frustration that eventually boils down to Eve having died of stress following an exorcism.

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The episode’s ultimate strength lies in shining a spotlight on an issue that most of us, particularly non-Catholics, don’t even think about outside the movies. Exorcism’s complexity is revealed to us by cold, statistical fact in Leo’s assertion that each Catholic diocese is equipped with an exorcist, as well as the rather alarming number of exorcisms that take place each year; and in its opposite, the portrayal of what actually goes on during such rituals. Jodie Comer as Eve is all intense sincerity and cold hysteria (when you see her, you’ll see what I mean) in portraying a young teenager convinced she’s possessed, and the episode’s centerpiece is without doubt her exorcism itself, a deeply upsetting and frankly horrifying couple of minutes that seem like hours.

Fear also somehow finds time to bring us back to the question we’ve been circling around for the whole of series 15: do pathologists understand death? Ultimately, when Leo’s self-assured question that ‘if we don’t understand that [death], then what do we understand?’ is met by an uncomfortable, almost pitying silence by Nikki and Harry, we realise, for sure, what we’ve known all along. Pathologists don’t know anything more about death than the rest of us. In Leo’s words, ‘we’ll never understand why.’

All through this episode, however, you can’t quite shake the idea that the writers are making it up as they go along. The episode whizzes here and there without much explanation, drags inexplicably and often leaves you struggling to ascertain precisely how a certain conclusion was drawn, or how we’ve ended up where we are. The script is a primary school scribbling compared to Death Has No Dominion and Redhill, the presence of two screenwriters not doing much to allay the general confusion.

All in all, despite the wibbly-wobbly script and the somewhat odd ending, Fear accomplishes what it meant to do in terms of showing the many faces and motivations behind exorcism, and could have been the best episode in the series with just a little more effort.

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Redhill: Silent Witness S15E9+10

This week’s Silent Witness gives us a good old fashioned prison conspiracy headily infused with multiple narrative levels, emotional blackmail and vicious brutality, as well as a brilliant rendering of a classic mystery-story attribute that is harder and harder to achieve convincingly nowadays: a culprit that you never suspect for one second.

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When a semi-intoxicated Leo stumbles upon a dying prison inspector, he starts to uncover the whole murderous mess that got her killed in the first place. The suspicious death of a child murderer at the disreputable Redhill prison, his suspiciously-helpful sister, the dirt-spattered service record of gratuitously violent prison guard Daniel Kessler (Leo Gregory) and an overconfident DI who seems just a bit too eager to look the other way all create a sinister silence on the subject of the prison that is eventually shattered into a million pieces by disembodied screams of indignation as to what is actually happening inside its walls. While immersing himself in these issues surrounding the prison system, Leo tries harder and harder to ignore his own feeling of being a nomad in the composition of his own life, a feeling that gives him a perpetual aura of bursting at the seams with emotions too complicated to classify. Each separate thread of this complex tapestry is perfectly singled out and incorporated into the sprawling whole with great skill by screenwriter Ed Whitmore in what I would not hesitate to call the best episode this season.

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Leo Gregory is the undisputed star of the show as prison guard Kessler: a towering and utterly repulsive screen presence, his mad unpredictability, threats and usually horrific outbursts of violence embodying this show’s characteristic ability to use the threats and sounds of violence to create an atmosphere that is infinitely more horrible than an actual portrayal of the violence itself could ever be. His character, however, also gets to spend a lot of time perpetrating this violence as well as threatening it, so expect a considerable assault on both your nerves and your retinae. Gregory’s ability to make an audience avert its face along with a character is truly impressive, and this capacity to get right into an audience’s space will no doubt serve him well on whatever material he sinks his teeth into in future.

This episode also gives William Gaminara a chance to make Leo the most interesting that he ever gets without you wanting to punch the stuffiness out of him, and his statement to his partner Janet at the end of the episode, ‘I just don’t live here anymore,’ is a moving and evocative statement as to Leo’s feelings regarding his place in the world. In the course of season 15, he’s become more and more unpredictable, but it is in this episode more than any other that we truly witness a vision of a man who has seen too much and has finally given up. His life ended with the lives of his wife and child, and I think that in this episode, he realises that in spite of all his efforts, he’s not getting it back. The police aren’t going to arrive faster; criminals aren’t going to stop murdering women and children; and the world is never going to be just. We’ll just have to see where this realisation takes him; if anywhere.

Beautifully and disturbingly filmed, well-acted and even more brilliantly written, Redhill is physical and emotional violence incarnate; an original, perfectly-structured, fresh and new spin on a very old, yet eternally relevant question.

Afterword

It has come to my attention that the idiots at BBC Entertainment seem to be screening this season of Silent Witness in the wrong order. The episode numbers in my review titles will therefore not correspond with official episode lists.

Paradise Lost: Silent Witness S15E5+6 – Review

Harry, Nikki and Leo aghast at the state of Arnold Mears' brain.Photo credit: Imageshack.

Harry, Nikki and Leo aghast at the state of Arnold Mears’ brain.
Photo credit: Imageshack.

This week’s Silent Witness is a merciful return to brilliance after last week’s yawn-fest and fits neatly into the great crime tradition of serial killers inspired by literature with great originality, replacing the usual culprit (Dante’s Inferno) with a new, but infinitely appropriate one – Paradise Lost.

In this episode, an annoyed Nikki’s chance encounter with the guy fixing the air-conditioning at the lab leads her to Annie Farmer (an excellent Rakie Ayola), a single mother under the ominous spell of convicted serial killer Arnold Mears (James Cosmo). He’s a Paradise Lost-obsessed master manipulator who gets his kicks controlling her from his prison cell by sending her hunting for human bones (‘souvenirs’) as a kind of grotesque ‘test’; a prelude to him telling her where he’s buried the bodies of his victims that are still unaccounted for. Annie does this from a deep sense of duty to help end the agony of the girls’ families, and, we learn later, because she believes (erroneously or not – we’re never told) that Mears is behind the disappearance of her sixteen year old daughter. Ayola’s magnificent face tells us far more than her simple, but moving dialogue as she alternates between half-hysterical pleading and dead-pan acceptance. Running parallel to this plotline, in the form of the disgrace of one of Nikki’s mentors, whose obsession with challenging the very fabric of neonatal pathology itself eventually drives her to madness and suicide, is the eternal question of what makes a pathologist and what makes a butcher, and that of the desperation of chasing an idea.

James Cosmo is electrifying as Mears. Having only seen him in bit parts as unimpressive one-dimensional characters on Merlin and Game of Thrones, this part is a great relief. He truly embraces the complexity and the nauseating, hair-raising personality of Mears; the pure, demonic evil smoldering from his eyes making you recall Nikki’s lines to Harry a lifetime ago: ‘there was something so evil about it all, it felt contagious.’ His voice-overs reading Paradise Lost, which continue throughout the episode, seem to infect its atmosphere like poisonous smog; the control he exercises on those he manipulates so subtle that at first, you hardly notice it’s there. Don’t miss his magnificent duel of wits with Nikki towards the end of the double bill: both Cosmo and Emilia Fox give their great, volcanic all in the scene and you can literally hear the deafening racket of these two titanic intelligences colliding; one a monster who thinks he’s a scientist, the other a human being who knows she is.

This double bill does a very good job of supporting the narrative in a serial killer story in which you already know whodunit, and abounds with that precise, moving, tasteful use of understatement that it lacked last week, most especially in Leo’s autopsy on a six month old baby, in which you see almost nothing but the tiny plastic sheet covering the infant – a haunting, harrowing image. My only complaint is precisely that of the previous two weeks: this program isn’t as ‘loaded’ as it used to be. There’s too much plot and not enough character; usually what makes this program stand out is its ability to make both work side by side so intensely that by the end of the double bill you’re exhausted and begging for mercy. So: great acting, great script. But next week, I’d like something more personal for Nikki, Harry and Leo.

And Then I Fell In Love…Silent Witness S15E3+4 – Review

It is perhaps understandable that after last week’s labyrinthine plot, the producers of Silent Witness thought going for something a lot simpler in this week’s episode would help give the audience a bit of a rest before things get really dark again: the TV equivalent of the gatekeeper scene in Macbeth. They have, to a certain extent, attained that goal, but what results in this episode focusing on a ring of British Pakistanis that kidnap white teenaged girls for prostitution is a creation that leaves you emotionally disconnected rather than desensitized.

Adorable, but...

Adorable, but…

The episode starts out on a rather jokey note with Harry calling Nikki from a temporary sleeping arrangement on his bathroom floor because of the frankly alarming racket that the builders next door are making. This is juxtaposed with the flight through the streets of a half-dressed and haggard young woman who is eventually hit by a car a couple of feet away from where Nikki has been chatting to Harry on the phone. As Nikki succeeds in resuscitating her, Harry’s bathroom blows up. Cut to opening credits, and thus endeth the last part of this episode that seems to make structural sense.

Here’s what I mean by structural sense. Huge chunks of this double bill are devoted to the process by which pimps woo and lure their captives: charm, shopping, clubbing, drugs. We also see a lot to do with the dangers of Facebook in aiding these criminals in finding victims, keeping tabs on them once they’re in the ‘recruitment’ process and terrorizing them if they happen to escape. All this is recreated with the noblest of intentions, and I fully support the role television can play and has to play in preventing these kinds of tragedies from taking place. The problem is that it’s all done with a lack of subtlety that is unworthy of this show and that even the dimmest teenager could see through right away.

The actual plot of the episode appears to have been structured around the contents of a Wikipedia article about seducing teenaged girls for prostitution when it should have been the other way round. The ‘seduction’ sequences drag and bore us to tears: surely for them to be effective, we should be on the edge of our seats during each of them muttering ‘Run away run away run away’ under our breath. Even the rape scenes, which are filmed from the drugged victim’s point of view, completely lack the pathos of such a perspective despite their being filmed in a vivid stream of consciousness style. And yes, we could say that the intention here is to represent the numbness of a victim rather than the pathos of an atrocity, but why choose either? Personally, I feel that rape has no place on television at all, and that suggesting it is always more effective than portraying it if you want to get a message across. Unfortunately, the whole point of this episode seems to have been getting a message across, and that, regrettably, is its most basic weakness.

Another issue that this episode could have delved into better and come out on top with is the issue of race hatred, which is mentioned twice, I think, in the entire double bill. Silent Witness has always done a terrific job on issues affecting immigrant, often closed communities in London, as well as their complex and sometimes catastrophic relationships with the ideology of their adopted country, such as 2008’s exquisite Judgement, which addressed a series of brutal homophobic murders inside a London community of Hassidic Jews. The British Pakistani sex offenders in this episode have a hatred of ‘white girls’ that is not explained beyond the observation that they’re all ‘whores’. Race hatred is an incredibly complex issue and the motives behind it can often make your head spin. During this episode, I was just confused, and considering the series’ aforementioned aptitude in dealing with the complexity of race hatred, I was also rather disappointed. A lot more trouble could have been taken.

BUT: all is not bad. Outstanding acting from many of the younger actresses playing rape victims, particularly Amy Wren as Shannon Kelly and Chloe Cuthill as Hannah. Much relief from boredom in Nikki’s decision to let Harry move in with her while his flat is being fixed, their scenes together boasting their usual playful and electrifying chemistry so that these small parts of the episode end up sparkling like stars in an otherwise muddy firmament.

While still far and away better than any episode of CSI, this is not the best that Silent Witness can do, and I hope to see a return of glorious existentialist script and incandescent acting in next week’s episode.

Death Has No Dominion: Silent Witness S15E1+2* – Review

The dominant theme pervading each aspect of last season’s premier was depression: this time, it’s death, as Nikki, Harry and Leo navigate a grey mist of suicide, serial murder and loss in this complex opener of Silent Witness season 15.

Sublime: Emilia Fox as Nikki Alexander

Sublime: Emilia Fox as Nikki Alexander

The many tiny, silken and vitally important threads of the episode’s spider web plot are established in a beautifully contrasted opening sequence of seemingly unrelated events filmed in the series’ characteristic disjointed, arthouse style. In voice over, Nikki reads Dylan Thomas’ poem And Death Shall Have No Dominion with iron composure at her father’s memorial service, her voice resonating through the beautiful, near empty cathedral; through the brutal murder of a pathologist at a crime scene the police were meant to have secured; through the subsequent, deafeningly silent suicide of her grieving sister; through a policeman gazing fixedly at an enormous image of a demonic-looking woman; and even through the pulsing death metal of violent young men packing up knives and stun guns. The sequence introduces early on the many different forms and effects of death that will build up in the episode like a house of cards, as well as the theme of the importance of the cooperation between police and pathology. In this episode, the character who comes to embody both these themes is Leo, as the pathologist’s sister who committed suicide was a close friend of his who is erroneously believed to have misled the police, sending him into a grief-driven mistrust of the police that reaches paranoid proportions, creating plenty of awkward moments as Nikki and Harry try to calm him down.

Harry Cunningham (Tom Ward), DI Connie James (Shelley Conn) and Nikki Alexander (Emilia Fox) doing/attending three consecutive autopsies.

Harry Cunningham (Tom Ward), DI Connie James (Shelley Conn) and Nikki Alexander (Emilia Fox) doing/attending three consecutive autopsies.

These two themes continue to work side by side as the plot of the episode is introduced, and the team’s investigation of a triple murder involving the suffocation of a child and the rape and immolation of a young woman puts them smack bang into the middle of a twelve year old police enquiry charged with tracking and capturing a serial killer known as The Wraith (awesomest serial killer name EVER), who gets her kicks from goading lower criminals into committing horrific crimes and watching them do it. The dynamic between master and accomplice comes to personify the different dynamics that police and pathology have with death. The dark, existential obsession of the police working on the Wraith Inquiry, exemplified by a frankly horrifying identikit of the killer that hangs permanently in their offices, shows a willingness to glamorize death, to make it ghastlier, more compelling, more interesting than it is. The Wraith is often referred to in devil-like or demonic imagery, turning her into a sort of ‘poster’ representative of death. Pathology’s view on death is given to us straight by Harry: try as we might to make death fascinatingly horrible, it often turns out to be disappointing: the most boring theory tends to be the right one, so that death rarely lives up to the big deal we make of it. This ‘disappointment’ is the Wraith’s accomplice, the triple murderer, a spoilt and frankly idiotic mother’s boy who has created a sort of army base from his room and likes to believe he’s damaged, disturbed and gangster. As complex as all this is, it can’t hope to tell us everything about how people who work around death each day of their lives actually see it; when work ends, when home begins. In this episode, Leo lost a friend – he’s also lost his wife and child; Nikki’s lost both her parents, her father’s death ending almost two decades of abandonment; last season, Harry lost a lover and her unborn child. They all wade neck-high in death, and though death is now the center of everything in both their personal and professional lives, they mourn, and keep buggering on. This, I believe, is the ultimate triumph of the pathologist’s standpoint on death: death has no dominion.

William Gaminara as Leo Dalton

William Gaminara as Leo Dalton

The complex plot made this episode extremely plot-centric, and while the plot itself is flawless, acting, character interaction and the series’ usually perfect equilibrium suffers because of it. The only person we really spend some quality time with is Leo, and this is my major complaint. Making Leo the protagonist in a season premier is a really bad idea: as a character, he is not half as interesting as Nikki or Harry, and in my experience, episodes focusing on either of them tend to be exponentially better overall than those focusing on Leo. There is also the fact that cannot be helped of Emilia Fox and Tom Ward both possessing an effortless charisma that simply makes both of them much more compelling to watch than poor William Gaminara. It was also going to be extremely difficult to live up to the artistry of last season’s incredible premier episode, and in committing the above errors, this goal has not been accomplished. Nevertheless, it’s a mesmerizing episode with a number of shocking twists right at the end that sport playfully with the viewer’s composure and promise us that the rest of this season is going to be absolutely enthralling.

*BBC Entertainment obligingly screens Silent Witness in a double bill, said double bill being what I mean when I say ‘the episode.’