The Last Weekend (ITV)

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You wait for months for a psychological thriller, and then two come along in the same week and and on the same TV channel. Go figure.

Blake Morrison’s novel on which this three-part adaptation is based describes itself by that term – psychological thriller, the same as Ruth Rendell’s Thirteen Steps Down reviewed here yesterday – but for some reason the TV trailers seemed desperate to avoid applying that label to The Last Weekend and instead made it seem like some soapy melodrama. As a result I skipped it when it aired on ITV, and only a recommendation from a friend on Twitter made me reconsider and go back to the ITV Player “On Demand” service to catch it after all – and I’m hugely glad I did.

The basic premise appears simple: two university friends (rich barrister Ollie, working class primary school teacher Ian) get together over a summer Bank Holiday for their annual reunion, together with their respective partners Daisy and Em. But right from the moment that Ian steps out of his car at a ramshackle holiday cottage in the countryside and is greeted by his old friend, there’s a strange atmosphere – an odd way to the manner with which they greet each other and embrace. There’s an over-the-top, passive-aggressive sporting bet made. We learn that Daisy was originally in a relationship with Ian rather than Ollie. The sense of unease and discomfort that something is out of place under the surface keeps getting stronger. Is someone up to something?

Then comes the bombshell when Ollie confides in Ian that he has an inoperable brain tumour and is dying. Or is he? There’s something about this that doesn’t feel right. Nothing else seems to support Ollie’s declaration. A crucial piece of dialogue is obscured and lost to us (and apparently also to Ian) by a blast of car engine noise. Is Ollie lying? Why would he? The longer the first episode goes on, the more everyone seems to be keeping crucial secrets from everyone else, and the stranger and more unnerving the situation feels; even the music starts to evoke the soundtrack of a David Lynch movie.

Then there’s the realisation that our one rock of presumed normality – Ian, our down-to-earth ordinary bloke and main point of identification – is also behaving increasingly oddly. First he abuses dinners at a classy restaurant over a trivial misunderstanding; then he starts to grow suspicious over the interaction between his wife Em and his best friend Ollie on the drive home. Perhaps he’s transferring a sense of guilt from his own clearly surging inappropriate feelings toward Daisy. The final scene of part one sees Ian reacting very oddly altogether as Daisy greets the unexpected arrival of a male friend of hers; is Ian starting to grow psychologically unstable, or are we reading too much into this? Then we realise that the way the scenes are being shot are also growing increasingly off-kilter: if Ian really is sliding into some sort of obsessive paranoia over things, then it seems he’s dragging us right in with him. We can’t trust what we’re seeing and hearing any more than the character can.

The whole thing conjures up a powerfully effective air of doubt and tension. While there’s been hints that the later episodes might end up in violence and murder, there’s been nothing anything as overt in the first episode – and yet it’s been utterly gripping. This is one of the rare shows that not only makes the multi-part format work for it (unlike Thirteen Steps Down which really suffered with the week-long break between halves) but even provides a miniature study in how to create brilliant little cliffhangers leading into advert breaks to ensure that you’re not going to stray far with the remote control.

The real stylistic coup de grâce, however, is the sudden shift away from the golden-hued summer days as we fast forward three months to a chilly, misty autumn – at which point Ian suddenly turns to camera and breaks the fourth wall to talk directly with us. Initially it’s jarring and shocking, but it’s done so well that soon it settles into an excellent way of explaining key character insights and plot details, as well as facilitating flashbacks to scenes from the friends’ university days. But soon that feeling shifts again and the whole thing starts to feel weird, as Ian wanders wraithlike through the scene of past crimes – whatever crime there may or may not have been in the interim. Has someone died? It feels like it; maybe Ollie wasn’t lying about the tumour after all. Or maybe someone else is lying and/or dying. Maybe everyone is lying. The more that the ghostly future Ian insists he doesn’t want to mislead us, the greater the feeling of dread that he’s doing just that.

The acting of the lead duo is first rate: as Ollie, Rupert Penry-Jones proves once again that he can take the posh, handsome golden boy template and deliver a truly nuanced and different dramatic portrayal every time. But it’s really Shaun Evans (virtually unrecognisable from his recent role as a young Inspector Morse in Endeavour) as Ian who dominates this, not least thanks to his impressively delivered pieces to camera – no easy thing to execute believably. He’s helped immensely by an incredibly polished script by Mick Ford, a very good actor in his own right whom I remember from many roles in the past. I swear I can really hear Ford’s cadence coming though the rhythm of Evan’s own delivery of the natural-sounding dialogue.

As I wrote yesterday, Thirteen Steps Down suffocated from being compressed into too small a slot, which forced it to be heavy handed in order to get everything in: it was clear that the lead character was a psycho going off the deep end the minute he stepped into frame. But The Last Weekend has been given more time to set out its skewed but believable characters and then slowly reach out and grip the audience with the creeping tension. It juggles the need to tantalise and intrigue with not making things so complicated that it puts viewers off. We know something is wrong even if don’t know what, yet we can’t look away. The psycho here could be anyone. Or all of them. Or none of them. Or maybe it’s us. Pass the medication, nurse.

There’s two episodes to go, and the remainder could yet fail to live up to the standards set in this first hour. I really hope not, because as it stands this is one of the most impressive pieces of original British drama I’ve seen in a long while – a match in quality to all that Scandi-Nordic-Noir fare we’ve been lauding so much over the last 18 months. That this is from ITV and so far removed from the standard cop/medical/period drama genres usually required to get a commission from any British TV broadcaster these days makes it even more astounding and welcome.

Currently showing on ITV on Sunday evenings at 9pm. Episode 1 is available on the ITV Player. The complete series is released on DVD on September 3 2012.

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