Contains some mild implied spoilers
Usually the problem with psychological thrillers is that they start well by building up intrigue and tension, but then implode in the second half under their own implausibilities – such as happened with the recent Thirteen Steps Down. The odd thing about the latest ITV entry into the genre is that A Mother’s Son is almost exactly the reverse.
That’s possibly because the first hour of this two-part drama is told very much from the point of view of Rosie (Hermione Norris), mother of teenager Jamie (Skins’ Alexander Arnold). By the time we meet her, Rosie has long-since divorced first husband David (Paul McGann) and is now married for a second time to widower Ben (Martin Clunes); Rosie and her son Jamie and her younger daughter live with Ben and his children, while David is embittered and scowling about custody while he goes about building boats on the beautifully photographed Suffolk coast.
The drama seemed determined to go out of its way to establish Rosie as borderline neurotic from the very first scenes, by having her on the phone to the police the minute one of the children is an hour late home from school after hanging out with friends. That does make her later sudden leap to assuming that her own son Jamie might be involved in the overnight murder of a schoolgirl in the area credible in the same overwrought way. Certainly her conclusion based solely on the discovery of some dirty trainers and a fresh load of washing would otherwise seem like an outrageous leap to the worst conclusions in the circumstances: even off the top of my head while watching, I could think of at least half a dozen alternative scenarios explaining the apparent situation, which would have made for better red herrings and shadows of doubt to be developed than what actually ends up being a rather sparse story at the end of the day.
That initial unerring leap to fear the worst is needed by the script, but is just the first time that Rosie is yanked first one way and then another by the plot’s requirements, to the point where it wrecks the character’s credibility. Having sparked all the doubts and suspicions in everyone around her, next she’s in total denial about Jamie’s possible involvement and outraged anyone else could even think it, even though she herself did ten minutes ago. Eventually, she finally realises that she has to do ‘the right thing’ – and does that just in time for the end credits. Such wild swings of behaviour may be actually quite psychologically true-to-life in reality, but in drama it’s wildly implausible and makes it seem that we’re watching an inciting incident made flesh rather than a believable character, despite the ever-watchable Norris doing her best with it.
There’s also a problem in the first half in that so much of it comes down to a succession of moments that leave you hoarse because of shouting “Well, why don’t you just talk to the people involved and ask them about it?!” at the annoying people on screen. It’s no coincidence that the series picks up tremendously when people actually do start talking to one another, sharing their thoughts and fears, including a succession of compelling confrontations with the under-suspicion Jamie (a great performance by Arnold, who really nails ‘typical moody teenager at a problem age’ to a tee.)
Strangely, the best part of the second hour and the bit that gripped me most was the plight of poor Ben in all this, who goes from not having a clue what’s going on, to stoutly supporting Rosie despite clearly thinking she’s losing it, to slowly coming round to believing her suspicions – which forces him to take his own steps in order to protect his children who are living in the same house. But can he, if it means betraying the woman he loves? Is he simply unduly influenced by Jamie not being his own son – is there an unacknowledged resentment there making suspicions easier for him to leap to? Clunes’ scenes are the best in the whole two hours and genuinely make you start wondering “What would I do in the circumstances?” It would have been far better if the entire story had been told from his perspective – or rather, if Norris’ character had been switched into this role rather than having to be remorselessly behind the instigation of the entire thing.
Alas, the other characters in the two-hour drama are woefully underdeveloped. The other children in Rosie and Ben’s family are little more than background extras at the breakfast table there to cast suspicious sideways looks at one another and generally to up the stakes involved for the adults. David (McGann) is oddly colourless, there purely as a sounding board for Rosie in the first hour and to do some private detection work to advance the plot in the second. One scene where he lies to the police in order to provide his son with an alibi feels like it should be a pivotal moment, but instead comes to absolutely nothing afterwards – just one of many red herrings that make you think that there’s more to the tale about to break through, only to tease and then come to nothing. It leaves a general sense of deflating disappointment when there proves to be so much less than originally met the eye.
For me, the production makes a major mistake by including a police investigation strand but then not having enough time for it to be anything more than a pallid by-the-numbers highlights package of every other cop show you’ve seen. Mortuary scene? Check. Murder board? Yes. DNA test results? Present. Evidence room? Yawn. This can’t be enlivened even by the presence of the ever-delightful Nicola Walker (like Norris, a Spooks graduate which inadvertently gives an odd ‘reunion’ feel to this production.) In fact, knowing what the police are up to and what they do and don’t know at any given stage undercuts the tension on the domestic front: it would have been far better if all we’d known about the investigation was the bland announcements from the radio bulletins, offing first hope that all is well and the suspicions unfounded when an arrest is announced, and then approaching terror as the net closes in from another direction.
A Mother’s Son has its moments, then; and for anyone who stuck with it through the first hour, the second half delivers far better than you expect and actually goes a long way toward making it all worthwhile. But really, this should have been much better with the talent involved. It just needed some more thought to construction of key parts of the plot, and a little more life on its characters rather than just having them dance to the stuttering beats of the undernourished plot.
A Mother’s Son is released on DVD in the UK on September 17 2012.