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The Shadow Line Review

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by Casimir Harlow Jul 29, 2011 at 4:45 PM

    It feels like every year we get yet another new police drama on British TV. Even more so across the pond. And, however much some attempt to be different, the old clichés always seem to creep back in: maverick cop, doesn’t play by the rules; angry boss always putting him on suspension but will stand up for him when it counts; ex-wife who is still in love with him etc. etc. They’re common in movies, and they have crept into TV drama too. I mean, you only have to watch something like Luther to see exactly what I mean. Don’t get me wrong, it’s absolutely fantastic viewing (second season not quite as good as the first, mind you) – driven by lead actor Idris Elba (The Losers), who pretty-much single-handedly makes the whole thing so damn watchable. But it’s not really amazing writing, plotting or characterisation – it’s basically just a massively charismatic lead in an engaging role. No, when was the last time you came across a truly different police drama? Well, for me, it was The Shadow Line, a BBC series that finished its run a few weeks ago and has just been released on Blu-ray. For its 7-episode run, it was one of the best things on British TV.

    The story follows a number of different characters – on both sides of the law – who are dealing with the fallout following the murder of a notorious drugs dealer, Harvey Wratten, who had just been released from prison after being given a Royal pardon. Running the investigation is Detective Inspector Jonah Gabriel (Chiwetel Ejiofor) – a partial amnesiac thanks to a bullet in his head and a lack of any knowledge of how it got there, his colleagues don’t trust him and he barely trusts himself, concerned that he may well have been a corrupt cop himself before the bullet ripped away his memory of it. On the other side of the law is Joseph Bede (Christopher Eccleston), who used to run Harvey Wratten’s crime empire through the front of a florist’s shop, and unwittingly became the head of the organisation after Harvey’s demise. Joseph’s wife is seriously ill – early onset Alzeihmer’s – and all he wants is to complete the big drugs deal that he has set up and get out of the business so he can care for her full-time. But his woes don’t just relate to his wife, as Harvey’s volatile nephew, Jay Wratten (Rafe Spall), is also out of prison – under the same mysterious pardon – and is pretty keen on finding out who killed his dad. As he had so much to gain from it, Jay is intent on watching over Joseph’s every action, and he gets even more suspicious when Joseph goes into business with Harvey’s old enemy, rival drug dealer Bob Harris (Robert Pugh). As the investigations proceed on both sides of the law, a further player comes in out of the shadows, a mysterious character known only as Gatehouse (Stephen Rea), whose agenda is known only to himself.

    “Cops, robbers, either way, you cannot trust them.”

    The Shadow Line is absolutely top notch viewing. Aside from the eclectic ensemble cast, playing some unique variations on the usual clichéd characters, relative newcomer writer/director Hugo Blick (who actually played the young Jack Napier – aka The Joker – in Tim Burton’s Batman) provides a fantastic, almost theatrical script – peppered with amazing dialogue – as well as some truly cinematic cinematography (with unusual location shots from the Isle of Man), with almost every scene framed like a work of art. Throw in a tremendous title theme, and haunting, often invasive, getting-under-your-skin scoring, and you have a stylish production that is only a couple of missteps shy of sheer perfection.

    It’s not overly dense plotting, but the first episode will probably leave you feeling that way – as the heavily stylised dialogue (as if everybody is speaking in code) initially distracts you away from the strong narrative. This works wonders though: as the series progresses, you feel like you’ve learned to speak the language yourself, the razor-sharp words bouncing back and forth between the ever-sparring characters; nobody ever speaking in a straight fashion, and yet you know exactly what they mean. Unpredictability also works in the story’s favour, the twists and turns never telegraphed – hell, they’re never even hinted at – you likely won’t know which side any of the characters are on until the final act and, even then, most of the true character motivations are muffled. Ambiguity is the name of the game; the intelligent drama being more about the morality of each individual character than the side of the law that they play on – with few walking a straight line in any event. And just as you’re getting to know them, the writer puts a new player on the map, or rips one off unexpectedly.

    For the first couple of episodes, you’ll be captivated by Rafe Spall (veteran character actor Timothy Spall’s son) as the psychotic Jay Wratten. Arguably the single best character, his twisted behaviour is nothing short of captivating. And he may well be prepared to go above and beyond to get the answers he wants, but he seldom does anything without reason. Then when Stephen ‘The Crying Game’ Rea’s enigmatic Gatehouse comes fully into the light, you’ll find yourself hanging onto his every word – his character leaving you guessing for most of the rest of the season. What is Counterpoint? And who exactly is Gatehouse? Is he a cop? Does he work for the Government? Is he good? Is he bad? Is he behind the whole thing?

    Freddie Fox makes a colourful entrance mid-season, as the androgynous Ratallack, an enigma in himself – ostensibly just a smart-mouthed rent boy who gets in with Robert ‘Master and Commander’ Pugh’s rival drug dealer, Bob Harris – but eventually shown to have his own ambitious agenda. After Ratallack’s appearance we start to hear about a certain Peter Glickman, who soon becomes everybody’s new target. Somehow once involved with both Stephen Rea’s Counterpoint and with knowledge of the incident that caused DI Gabriel to lose his memory, he doesn’t disappoint as a character when you finally meet him. Played by Sir Antony Sher, the acclaimed thespian – a writer, painter, theatre director and actor of significant calibre – Glickman becomes yet another unusual persona to add to the entourage, Sher stealing your attention whenever he’s on screen.

    Rounding out the cast we get plenty of smaller characters who are just as cleverly presented against type – DI Gabriel’s partner, Detective Honey, who is tough with her words as she is with her fists, is played perfectly by Kierston Wareing (lauded for her performance in Fish Tank, utterly wasted with her role in Season 2 of Luther); drug dealer’s Joseph Bede’s ailing wife is played by Lesley Sharp (Clocking Off, Naked), to utterly harrowing, devastating effect, as the Alzheimer’s sets in; and David Schofield gets all the best lines in the whole production, as a gum-chewing veteran beat cop who appears to be playing all sides for himself.

    “You see the truth constable, the truth it's like lightning. Always follows the line of least resistance. So, for what we do, the trick is simple. All we have to do is find the line and then follow it back up.”

    Of course the main players are Chiwetel Ejiofor’s DI Jonah Gabriel and Christopher ‘Shallow Grave’ Eccleston’s reluctant drugs kingpin Joseph Bede – both dealing the cards they are dealt, and attempting to put all the pieces together and have everything work out, in spite of the fact that they know that everything seldom goes according to plan. Best laid plans and all that. Ejiofor, who distinguished himself in both Joss Whedon’s Serenity and the excellent Children of Men, plays Gabriel a little like a partial amnesiac variation on the Len Deighton spy character Harry Palmer, made iconic by Michael Caine in The Ipcress File and its sequels – he’s tenacious and persistent in his quest to get to the truth, to uncover the mystery, and he will do whatever it takes, whether that involves disobeying his superiors or putting his own life on the line, to find it. The scenes with both his immediate boss, Patterson (Richard Lintern), or their superior, Commander Khokar (Ace Bhatti), are very reminiscent of the similar three-way power play in the aforementioned Ipcress File – all three essentially trying to avoid taking the blame and see the other ones go down instead. And Eccleston’s desperate plight to get that one last drug deal done is anything but the cliché that it sounds like – you truly feel for the horrific situation with his wife. On extremely restrained form, Eccleston never tries to garner your sympathy, but his manner just attracts it nonetheless.

    Still, even though these two are essentially the bread and butter of this highly unusual crime drama, you will often be mesmerised by the other colourful characters on offer – Rafe Spall, Stephen Rea and even Antony Sher on scene-stealing form throughout – as well as by the powerful, extremely tense and suspenseful scenes involving all of them. From the stand-off between a guy armed with a garrotte and another armed with a small blow-torch, to the scene where a character uses a cat and a bucket of water to get his point across, to the three-way foot-chase to get to a potential witness – even the action cleverly goes against the grain, the violence often erupting off-screen, only a couple of gunshots making it through intact. And with simply perfect framing – symmetry working wonders for some of the superb shots (like the first time you see Glickman without his ‘disguise’) – combined with the hauntingly evocative score, which itself appears to build as the shots slowly pull in, this is top tier viewing; the Best of British right here.

    “You believe her?”
    “There was no reason not to.”
    “You’re a police officer. You wanna’ be a good one, then you better learn to put that answer the other way round.”

    I’m even prepared to largely sweep the aforementioned missteps under the carpet – it’s such a quality drama that you really shouldn’t complain. Was the standoff using a gun and a clothes hanger a scene too far? No, not in the context of the series as a whole, but it did tip the hand of one of the ancillary characters at a very early stage, leaving viewers pretty perplexed – no doubt shouting “that was just silly” – with no possible explanation offered until a long way down the line, long after the stage where it would get any kind of “ah, now I get it” response. Rafe Spall’s off-the-wall psychotic Jay Wratten is also woefully underused over the latter half of the series – I know we get plenty of other colourful characters to make up for it, but damned if he wasn’t the best one of the lot. And Chiwetel Ejiofor may be good at a lot of things, but his overly emotional scenes often involve facial contortions that just don’t look like good acting (there’s an extra one which was cut, and makes the deleted scenes, and you can’t help but think that this was exactly the reason).

    Oh, and the final episode? Well, that’s always going to be a problem with drama this good – you just don’t want it to end. Sure, everything is pretty-much resolved, you get the impression the writer/director never intended there to be any more from these characters, but after getting to know them so well over seven intricate hour-long episodes, practically learning how to speak and understand their language, and following the convoluted but gripping course they take as the mystery unravels, you simply don’t want to let them go. In many ways, The Shadow Line is like the British equivalent to The Wire, a similar morality play which not only followed the worlds of both police and drug dealers on opposite sides of the same coin, but also explored the good and bad individuals in both realms: you could have bad cops, and good drug dealers – that was the magic of both shows. And just like The Wire had to draw to an eventual close, here is where The Shadow Line ends, 7 hours of pure genius all coming full circle.

    Highly recommended, quite honestly the best thing that has been on British TV for quite some time (even up against the likes of the superbly quirky modern-day Sherlock Holmes reboot) and certainly the best police drama we have seen in years – reminiscent of the intelligent BBC dramas of the 80s like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Edge of DarknessThe Shadow Line may not appeal to everybody – the stylised dialogue just doesn’t work for everyone – but it is definitely worth finding out if it works for you. Unmissable.