In fairness, after I’d had a night to think about it, it stopped being bathetic and started to make a bit of sense in the overall context of the show: if we can’t be sure who’s good and bad, blah blah obligatory insertion of something about lines and shadows into every other scene, then having the proceeds of the “bad” support the “good” is on all fours with the general thrust of The Shadow Line. (Although there seems to be little doubt about Gatehouse, who even helpfully dressed in black.) But, God, did Hugo Blick make a meal of getting there. It certainly couldn’t be said that he gave us a happy ending either, with deaths aplenty, a couple of twists—and a final one I didn’t see coming at all—and the rise of a new generation, with the two most rebarbative characters of the lot ending up in the ascendancy.
I’m desperately trying not to be too hard on The Shadow Line. On the one hand it had vast ambition, an audience-flattering density of plot, two or three brilliant set-pieces, and some terrific acting, especially from Christopher Eccleston (Stephen Rea was very good as well, but the part required him to topple into camp a little too often). On the other—well, the longueurs were long, weren’t they? And although I’ve said this plenty of times before, it really needed a firm hand in the editing suite. Still, the fact that the BBC is still prepared to fund and make challenging drama of this type has to be regarded as a good thing, even if ultimately The Shadow Line ended up as something less than an unqualified success.
Right. So if I’m following this—and there’s absolutely no guarantee that I am—when Gabriel was shot, he was in some way involved with a drug transaction in which at least one of the participants was working for the police, selling drugs which came from the police, which were being purchased with money which also came from the police. Not only does this render the criminals more or less redundant, it inescapably reminded me of Catch-22’s Milo Minderbinder.
Anyway, this episode was the usual mixture of the impressive and the unnecessarily portentous: for example, a key scene in the flat of Gabriel’s mistress Alison was very nearly as excruciatingly tense as it needed to be, but the lengthy pauses in the dialogue left it all feeling a little… camp? More violence and hugely significant deaths this week, which I didn’t see coming at all, and a recovery which I didn’t see coming either. And exactly where Petra fits into it all—Counterpoint, perhaps?—I couldn’t begin to say. As before I applaud the ambition, but wonder whether some ruthless editing might have made The Shadow Line even better. Presumably the final episode will explain everything.
Last week, it might be recalled, I rather petulantly bailed on The Shadow Line before reconsidering. Actually I bailed halfway through episode 4, and after watching the rest of it I’d have to concede that it got much better; there was a death and Eve Best turned up as Petra. (Best, incidentally, is every bit as good in this as she is in Nurse Jackie. As far as I can tell she’s spent most of her working life on the stage but with these roles and her part in The King’s Speech it seems to me that a particular kind of screen stardom is hers if she wants it.)
Anyway, I’m glad I was persuaded to hang around because this was, by some distance, the best episode so far. The first half of the episode, in particular, was as good as The Shadow Line has been. To start with, I was concerned that yet more new characters were being thrown at us, but it quickly became clear that one of them was someone we’ve already heard a lot about: finally, Glickman (Antony Sher) makes his appearance. And the first 30 minutes of the episode were both chilling and mesmerising, as Glickman – living in disguise in Dublin – was recognised by someone he’d done a deal with years ago, then tracked down by Gatehouse (Stephen Rea), whereupon Sher and Rea shared a scene which, on its own, pretty much justified The Shadow Line’s existence.
After that we were back with the cops and gangsters in London, with an unexpected character emerging as a major player and offering to buy Bede’s drug shipment; Bede himself, wholly understandably, falling for the charms of Petra; and Gabriel getting closer to what went down the night he was shot.
I’m not going to pretend that I’m clear about everything that’s going on, which might be my weakness rather than the show’s. But in any event I’m now hooked until the end.
I think I’m out. Maybe I’m getting old, maybe I’m hankering for simpler pleasures… but who are all these people? More fundamentally, what’s the actual mystery here? I mean, I don’t mind a complex whodunnit when I know what the puzzle to be solved is, but with The Shadow Line I’m not sure that I do know. I might record the remaining episodes and give them a go at some point, but at the moment I’m leaning towards forgetting the whole thing. Which is a shame, because there’s clearly a considerable imagination at work here.
What e said, largely. I unequivocally applaud The Shadow Line’s ambition, but there really is a sense that everyone concerned is trying just a little too hard. The writing is sometimes appealingly terse, the cinematography is sometimes startling, and the acting is sometimes spot-on – particularly when Christopher Eccleston is on screen. And on our Psycho-O-Meter, Rafe Spall turned it down a little this week. But too much of it strains for meaning and significance, trying to make what should be a rattling cops vs gangsters tale into something more. In fairness the plot – which also spends a lot of time spinning its wheels – had two major shocks this week: I didn’t see the Gatehouse business coming at all, and the last scene hints at a very murky existence for Gabriel. With the same person (Hugo Blick) in charge of writing, directing, and producing, I wonder whether some division of labour might have tightened things up a bit?
Hmm. Still promising; but also still flirting, at the very least, with being pretentious, portentous, and faux-Pinteresque. Rafe Spall, chilling last week, was more of a pantomime dame this time. And too much of the episode was taken up with the hunt for Wratten’s driver Andy, with a succession of possible-Andy-contacts being visited by a succession of people trying to find him. Still, we got to meet the taciturn Gatehouse (Stephen Rea) – goodie or baddie? – the chase which filled the last 15 minutes or so was genuinely exciting and very well done, and it remains unusual to see a British drama with this sort of art and ambition. Another week, I reckon.
From the first scene – in which two police officers discuss at length how the corpse they’ve found in a car came to be there – it’s clear that The Shadow Line is brimming with the sort of insouciant confidence unusual in British drama. Anyway, the body is that of drug dealer Harvey Wratten, just released from prison along with his psychopathic nephew Jay (Rafe Spall), both recipients of Royal Pardons in circumstances which are hinted at but remain unclear.
Harvey’s business seems, for now, to have fallen into the hands of his lieutenant Joseph (Christopher Eccleston, superb), who is portrayed as decent and unambitious, and whose wife has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s (providing a small, and presumably coincidental, thematic link with this week’s Exile). Joseph seems to be prepared to cede control to the mysterious missing Glickmann. (The driver of the vehicle in which Harvey is found is also missing. I assume this isn’t Glickmann, although I may have picked this up wrongly.)
On the police side, the job of finding Harvey’s killer is given to DI Gabriel (Chiwetel Ejiofor, restrained), who has just returned to work following a lengthy absence; we are drip-fed information about the circumstances throughout the episode, but it turns out that he has a bullet in his brain after a police operation went wrong; the even more macabre kicker to that is that the bullet had already passed through, and killed, a younger colleague. Gabriel claims to have no recollection of the incident, but the implication is that there is more to his backstory than we are being told; he’s given a nasty grilling by a journalist at a press conference, and in the final scene he makes a startling discovery in his house which suggests that he may have been up to no good. (There’s a lovely, throwaway remark made by a female colleague, after he’s held a door open for her, that he never used to do that sort of thing previously. He’s changed.)
I can see how The Shadow Line might come across as pretentious and portentous, and it undoubtedly has the potential to go horribly wrong if it mistakes style for substance. However, it’s refreshing to see a British drama which is prepared to take a few risks, and I have to say that it feels to me as if it has the capacity to turn into something exceptionally good. I can see how it might become addictive, and I’ll certainly be watching next week.