Friday, December 6, 2013

They All Fall Down

The Fall, Series 1, BBC Northern Ireland

The first episode opening shots in the BBC’s The Fall show Gillian Anderson as DS Stella Gibson wearing flannel pyjamas and a clay beauty mask, scrubbing the bathtub with no bra on. Casting an actress famed for physical beauty and poise, then immediately stealing both, presages what this series offers. It’s a dark-hued, unromantic explosion of police efficiency and criminal precision, making us question who’s the real villain here.

When a murder goes unsolved one month on, Belfast police contract London Metropolitan legend Stella Gibson to audit their system. She quickly notices the connections between this and another unsolved murder, but Belfast refuses to acknowledge a serial killer. That is, until dispassionate, meticulous Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan) takes his third victim, and begins stalking his fourth. Suddenly, police must dodge blame while tracking a killer who knows their strategies.

Anyone watching this series expecting Anderson to reprise her classic X-Files role will feel acutely disappointed. DS Gibson lacks either Dana Scully’s early reasoned efficiency or later credulous zeal. Gibson is professionally ruthless, intellectually aggressive, sexually voracious, and masks an vengeful core beneath protocol and dispassion. If you were a crime victim, you’d want her on your investigation, but you’d never buy her a drink.

In a parallel narrative, serial killer Spector leads a dual life. By day, he has a beautiful young family, exercises obsessively, and counsels bereaved parents. By night, he stalks dark-haired thirtysomething professionals. He has perfected the art of scaring his victims in ways police can’t prosecute. And he’s meticulous in keeping an impenetrable wall between his bucolic middle-class life and his midnight murders. Spector and Gibson never meet.

Gibson and Spector’s mutual hunt unfolds against Belfast’s brick-paved backdrop, where lingering sectarian divides mean standing on the wrong street could get you killed. Police must weigh every action, not just via the law, but against political ramifications that could start riots. Though The Troubles are long over, factional divides survive, and two arrests on the same street can resemble political oppression, as Gibson learns only too late.

Audiences unaccustomed to British TV conventions might find this series’ pacing offbeat. The languid narrative tempo more resembles French horror films than American cop dramas. Events unfold with Andrei Tarkovsky-like lack of haste, punctuated with sudden stabs of action so abrupt, they touch deep, primal, pre-evolutionary fears. But this better emphasizes the show’s innately horrifying themes, for viewers who can adjust themselves to its idiosyncratic rhythms.

Director Jakob Verbruggen cherry-picks his favorite components from thriller formulae, crafting an arc that sometimes obeys audience expectation, sometimes subverts it. From sooty streets to CSI nerd-talk to police infighting, many scenes will appear downright comfortable. But nobody saves the puppy in Act III. Every time we attempt to predict the story’s twists, Verbruggen submarines us, rekindling the sense of dislocation that first attracted many audiences to classic crime thrillers.

While Spector’s crime spree permeates this five-episode series’ core, subplots develop as police involved with the investigation, or involved with Gibson, prove darkly corrupt. Gibson has an incautious liaison with a Belfast detective who gets assassinated less than twenty-four hours later; and as Detective Olson’s sordid side business becomes visible, Gibson finds herself tainted. The two plots form a self-feeding cycle of crime and sleaze.

The camera loves both Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan. Though Anderson’s beauty is already renowned, Verbruggen never squanders an opportunity to showcase her with blouse open, or in a swimsuit, or charmingly unkempt. Dornan, a former Armani model, is less famous, but about the third time he does shirtless chin-ups, you’ll understand his casting as Christian Grey. Fair warning: despite minimal violence, this series’ frank sexuality may curl parents’ hair.

Even Belfast itself plays a remarkable character in this story. The contrast between the slick, glass-and-steel city centre, and the cobblestone residential streets, is frequently jarring. Gibson’s hotel has no trace of anything antique or genuinely Irish, while Spector has the kind of Victorian rowhouse that Americans consider quintessentially British. But Gibson and Spector’s pursuits take them into crumbling Shankhill and Falls Road areas where poverty has a manifest odor.

Dramas like this seldom play well on American TV. The closest I can recall is Steven Bochco’s Murder One, which never found its audience in the mid-1990s. This more resembles a novel than a bog-standard cop drama. But the audience seeking that level of intricacy, that deep investment in character, will find it here. But prepare yourself for a level of intensity to make typical American TV audiences cringe.

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