National Treasure ep 4

NATIONAL TREASURESpoilers: specifically, the jury’s verdicts and whether he did it.

It’s the final episode, and time for the trial of Paul Finchley. I’ve said before that a criminal trial is a gift to any TV show because it’s actually quite difficult to make it something other than exciting. To start with, though, National Treasure has a good try, shooting the action using odd angles and heightened colours which distract from, rather than amplify, the tension of the courtroom. It’s no surprise to discover that the episode was directed by Marc Munden, who was also involved with the far superior Utopia, a show in which these devices were, perhaps, more appropriate. (It’s also worth saying that the score by Cristobal Tapia de Veer – also part of the Utopia team – really hits home this week, particularly in the final scene.)

Slowly, though, the episode starts to assert its power: The complainants give evidence, and are then picked apart by Paul’s barrister (a commanding Kerry Fox) as he watches on, mostly impassive and unreadable, apart from the startling moment when a couple of tears trickle down his face. Despite his barrister’s success Paul insists on going into the witness box himself: frequently a dangerous thing to do, and he too is thoroughly compromised on the witness stand; he maintains his innocence of the charges, but what he admits to is damaging enough.

In the middle of all this, Paul’s wife Marie finally makes up her mind about her husband’s guilt after months of equivocating: “I think”, she tells her husband, “you did it”. She then takes up Karl’s long-standing offer and sleeps with him, although the post-coital conversation suggests that, on one level at least, she was hoping to seduce him into giving evidence indicative of Paul’s guilt. The problem for Karl, though, is that if Paul is convicted, it will feel to him as if his own career as Paul’s comedy partner has been invalidated; thus, when he comes to give evidence, he maintains that he remembers nothing about a key incident.

Which takes us to the big reveals. At the start of the season I predicted that we would probably be left wondering about Paul’s actual guilt or innocence, whatever the jury’s verdict. Well, I got that wrong: before the verdict is delivered we get to see, in flashback, that he is indeed a sexual predator, and very guilty of both of the crimes of which he’s been accused. (Also, perhaps, although it’s not mentioned further, the allegations which didn’t make it as far as the trial? And presumably it’s established that Karl has, in fact, been an enabler, if not a participant?) Once we know that, it’s almost inevitable that the jury will find him not guilty, and so it turns out.

And so, although there’s an obligatory celebration party on the back of Paul’s acquittal, it’s necessarily rendered entirely hollow for the viewer – maybe for Paul himself – by that knowledge, and for Paul by Marie’s absence. Whether that’s a temporary or permanent situation is left unanswered, as is whether Paul genuinely thought he was telling the truth, and the key issue of whether he directly abused his daughter, or whether she was damaged by watching her father and her babysitter together. Or, maybe, whether her problems are nothing to do with either. As the show has answered the big questions, I’m quite happy with one or two being left up to the viewer to think about.

I’m still very much of the view that the second and third episodes could have been telescoped into one without any great loss. Allowing for that, though, this was undoubtedly one of the better British dramas I’ve seen, and further proof, were it needed, that Robbie Coltrane is a major talent. Julie Walters, Andrea Riseborough, and Babou Ceesay were also excellent.

National Treasure ep 3

Same as last week, then, with another accomplished but faintly pointless episode: more flashbacks, more jumpy editing, more jarring camera angles, more woozy and out-of-focus shots, all heightening the sense of dislocation and strongly implying that something bad has happened, but not yet providing any actual hard-and-fast clues.

Paul continues strongly to protest his innocence, a – tactical but inaccurate? – willingness to admit consensual sex with his main accuser, Rebecca Thornton, notwithstanding, and Marie remains uncomfortably equivocal. It may be, mind you, that one of the flashbacks is intended to point us towards believing Paul to be guilty: we’re shown appalling behaviour towards a younger Rebecca by one of Paul’s showbiz buddies; Paul doesn’t actively participate in it but doesn’t discourage it either. If you were determined to be charitable you could say it was crass but of its time; either way, though, it stubbornly resists being refashioned into a smoking gun.

The best scene by a mile is, of course, the one near the end, when Paul (Robbie Coltrane in mesmeric form) recounts, in a strikingly even voice, the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father. That he’s telling his daughter Dee about it once again throws up the possibility – as he acknowledges – that people, were they to find out about it, would have little difficulty in concluding that the abused became the abuser. But we’re not any closer to working out whether that is actually the case; and, to be honest, I’m not as invested in finding out as I was at the end of the first episode.

National Treasure ep 2

It didn’t take much prescience to predict that National Treasure would slow down at some point, just a working familiarity with British TV drama. I didn’t expect it to happen quite as quickly, though. In fairness, the episode gets off to a flying start, as the first scene is one of the strongest: Paul, against legal advice, gives a radio interview intending to protest his innocence, and complains about how the police publicised his case in the hope of drawing out other complainants. Which, if he’s innocent, is a reasonable point to make. On the other hand, if he’s guilty, the police might well be justified. “What should the law be doing?” he’s asked. “Protecting possible victims or protecting possible perpetrators?”; and since it’s not an easy question to answer even from a dispassionate standpoint, it’s no surprise he flounders.

Thereafter, though, much of the episode is given over to his daughter Dee (Andrea Riseborough, excellent again if occasionally, perhaps, a little too mannered), and the implication that her self-destructive – and, as in the final scene, generally just plain destructive – behaviour is in some way attributable to a not-so-Secret Pain: i.e. she was abused by Paul. Although on what we saw this week the babysitter (one of Paul’s accusers) also looks like a reasonable outside bet for the infliction of Secret Pain. Anyway, lots of flashbacks, lots of woozy colours, all hinting that something happened; but stopping short, for now, of making clear what that something might be. It comes to a head at Dee’s birthday party, when Marie – very clearly wondering herself about her husband’s guilt, but suppressing those doubts – slams into Dee for embracing victimhood. It’s Julie Walters at the top of her game, which is of course saying quite a lot. Marie also has to deal with Paul’s comedy partner Karl, and the strong suggestion that he might be a wrong ‘un: he makes a half-hearted pass at her, which he hurriedly withdraws when she makes it clear that there’s nothing doing. Which makes him a cad and a bounder, perhaps, but not – not yet, anyway – a predator.

It’s not bad, by any means. It’s actually quite good. In particular, every scene with Babou Ceesay as Paul’s lawyer confirms him, once again, as a talent to be watched. But it doesn’t feel essential, and last week’s did.

National Treasure ep 1

Ageing British entertainer Paul Finchley (Robbie Coltrane) is a recognisable type: half of a double-act; UK showbiz to the cuffs of his Pringle sweater; fading a little, perhaps, but with an afternoon TV game show to keep his career ticking over. He is, as the title would have it, a national and much-loved treasure; everyone he meets, including police officers, is at pains to tell him that they’re a fan. We first encounter him presenting a lifetime achievement award to Karl (Tim McInnerny), his comedy partner, who we are invited to infer to have been a little more successful of late.

Nonetheless, life is good, at least until the police are at the door of the house he shares with Marie (Julie Walters), his wife of 41 years, telling him he’s been accused of a rape in 1993. All very Yewtree. He denies the allegation, and is assisted at a police interview by lawyer Jerome Sharpe (an electrifying Babou Ceesay).

At first, and because Coltrane’s portrayal is so sympathetic, the protestation of innocence is all we have to go on. There’s more, though: it isn’t long before we find out about Paul’s serial infidelities, past and – as it turns out – present. There’s “violent” porn on his phone. His recovering addict daughter Dee (a brilliantly unsettling Andrea Riseborough) is in a halfway house, and during a remarkable scene recounts to Paul a dream she had about him, which hints at brutality and sexual abuse. And by the end of this first episode there are seven allegations of sexual crimes against him, including one made by the family babysitter, who would have been underage at the time. “They think”, Paul concludes, “I’m Jimmy fucking Savile”.

I’m always a little sceptical about British TV drama. I’d have to say, though, that National Treasure is comfortably one of the better ones I’ve seen over the past few years. Jack Thorne’s writing is on-point, with most of the scenes hitting the mark. The plotting, thus far, is intriguingly ambiguous. And the acting is excellent, particularly the two leads: Coltrane is entirely plausible as a larger-than-life entertainer with a hint of something darker, and Walters excels as the supportive and tolerant wife, evidently beginning to wonder whether by knowing about and accepting Paul’s unfaithfulness she has perhaps been overlooking or facilitating something much worse. The pacing is a little ponderous in places, in my view; but it’s British, after all, and at the end of the fourth episode I fully expect to be saying that it could have been done in three. That aside, though, I thought it was excellent.

For what it’s worth, my bet is that the series will end with Finchley’s guilt having been determined by the legal system one way or another, but with the viewer left in doubt as to what he actually did or didn’t do. The greater mystery, though, and it will endure, is why Robbie Coltrane – a powerful and subtle dramatic actor, a versatile comic actor, and a brooding, magnetic screen presence – hasn’t quite had the parts, or the career, that he should have had. He last won a BAFTA in 1996; the third of three, back-to-back, for his performance as Fitz in Cracker. If he’s as good in the next three episodes, I’d say a nomination at least is on the cards. This man is a proper star.