I thought about not writing about this, because it is a made-for-television mini-series, but decided I liked it better than some of the other actual “films” I watched this week. So there. I got turned on to this in looking through the BAFTA Award nominations for last year. Criminal Justice won Best Drama Serial and Best Writing (those two together were why I grabbed it out of the ether). It baffles me how US television struggles to fill its time slots with crappy reality programs and stupid faux-news reportage shows (not to mention the wealth of bad sitcoms and sub-par dramas), when it could save money by simply importing a fraction of what it exports. Yes, it’s British so some of the cultural references have to be deciphered, but its not like people would have to make an effort to read subtitles or anything like that…
Ranting aside, this is a fine (though not great) 5 hour procedural that any fan of Law & Order or some such U.S. show would love. Britain has much more of a history steeped in the police-procedural/detective-crime series (in part due to the fact that the there is a wealth of variety in the shows, instead of the same retread and revision of the same brand over and over). From what I can gather, at least with the BBC, the writer is much more the center of the program. There tends to be one person credited with writing the entire serial/series (in this case, Peter Moffat). This format is an interesting one that doesn’t seem to come up on American television all that much (unless packaged and spun into some ridiculous “event” type marketing blitz). Giving the story 4, 5, or 6 hours to unfold allows for much more involvement with the characteers than a typical 2 hour movie would allow, but doesn’t drag out unneccesary, repeatative beats over a entire season (even if only a dozen or so episodes, as the US networks are seeming to contemplate for budgetary reasons in the coming future). There’s something formally different about watching a 5 hour TV story arc that holds the attention (even with commercial breaks cut) from watching even a 3 hour film made for the theatrical presentation. Maybe TV really is turning my brain into mush. It’s a different type of writing. More rock, less roll (or maybe it’s the other way around).
ANYWAY, this particular piece of television finished airing on BBC One exactly a year ago today. While there are scores of series shows with the same drab coloring and monotonous pacing like this one, this one slightly differs from most in that it focuses on the process of the criminal/defendant. This takes us through the night-of-the-alledged-crime, the arrest, the trial, and the aftermath, following the journey of one young man (Ben Whishaw) through Britian’s criminal justice system. And it presents a rather critical view of what justice really means throughout this process, presenting characters who all seem to display some sense of disconnect between the Truth and the Law. I can’t say much else about this without giving away plot points; the journey is not a predictable one, though it is not entirely dramatically innovative either.
Ben Whishaw doesn’t seem to be doing much in a large part of this, but his Ben Coulter is portrayed with a level of quiet intensity that never falters; you never really know how much he knows or doesn’t know about what’s has been/is going on. Other supporting actors are solid; Bill Patterson, Juliet Aubrey (not being chased by dinosaurs), and, of course, Pete Postlethwaite. The stand out here, though, is Con O’Neill, as Coulter’s lawyer; chews up every scene he’s in.
Having had a fairly boring day, I sat down and plowed through all five installments in one night (ridiculous, I know). I wouldn’t suggest doing that, but you might give it a try, if you can find it available where you live. A thematically related second series is apparently on its way.