Apologies, I’m a week behind watching this series and although episode 2 aired last night as I write and post this, I’ve only seen the first episode so far. Even so, I still wanted to pen a few words on it before the series went too far into its run for people to decide whether or not to jump on board. This post does contain spoilers for episode 1, but not beyond.
This is a new five-part psychological thriller by writer-producer Allan Cubitt (Prime Suspect 2, Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Runaway) that takes the serial killer crime procedural into welcome new territory, both in a storytelling and geographical sense. Set in Belfast, there are echoes of the time euphemistically referred to as ‘The Troubles’ but refreshingly these are neither the point nor the focus of the story that unfolds.
Instead, the series follows two characters, both of them outsiders but in very different ways. DSI Stella Gibson is from the Metropolitan Police, asked in by her counterparts in Northern Ireland to conduct a review of a murder case that’s gone cold despite having a high profile victim, a successful young architect who was also the former daughter-in-law of a Unionist MP – which immediately suggests political pressures will apply.
The second character is Paul Spector, a quiet unassuming man with a wife and two kids who works as a psychotherapist. On the face of it he’s the kind of person you’d be happy with as a next door neighbour, although there’s something about his suppressed emotions and general distractedness that might give you pause to wonder what is really going on in his mind. As he tells his wife, to actually know what is going through someone else’s mind would be intolerable, for Spector’s general low-level chronic depression only finds relief as he spends his days stalking women and planning ways to break into their homes to assault them. Spector by name has become a haunting spectre by nature.
So far his movements have gone unnoticed and unsuspected by the local police; when Gibson hits on the idea that the specific cold case she’s been brought in to review is connected to an even older one, the senior officer who invited her over (Jim Burns, played by John Lynch) in the first place doesn’t want to know and rejects out of hand the option of linking the cases. But events elsewhere are moving rapidly out of his control and will likely force his hand …
The first episode is a sombre, slow-burning affair that’s pervaded by an unsettling atmosphere of tension and menace by director Jakob Verbruggen, so much so that it’s probably the closest yet that British TV has got to the feel of ‘Nordic Noir’ since Wallander first arrived and helped rewrite the rules of top-quality crime shows. It’s got so much of that unearthly and eerie sense of otherness that if you dubbed the actors into Swedish or Danish and then played in Franz Bak’s music over the scenes of Gibson staring off into the middle-distance as she makes a slow realisation that will become a major break in the case, you’d be entirely forgiven for thinking you were watching Forbrydelsen IV on BBC4 on a Saturday evening.
The first episode sets up a lot of parallels between the characters. Gibson is newly arrived in Belfast and doesn’t know the area or the people, so she is a genuine outsider disconnected from everything around her; Spector might live here but he’s just as much an outsider even while surrounded by loving family and cheery work colleagues. As Spector watches his latest target working late and drinking red wine in the faux-safety of her home, the director intercuts scenes of Gibson in her hotel room also working late, also drinking red wine. The comparison between Gibson and Spector’s ‘type’ is made disconcertingly clear and perhaps prefigures future events, and yet for now it’s us doing the stalking of the DSI rather than Spector which if anything is even more unsettling for the audience.
I’ll make no secret that the initial principle appeal of The Fall is in the actress playing Gibson: I’ve been a completely smitten fan of Gillian Anderson ever since she first stepped out in her star-making role as FBI agent Dana Scully in The X-Files. Not only did I love that show, but I genuinely thought she was the best thing about it; and the amazing thing is that in the intervening 20 years (yes, I know – scary, isn’t it?) she’s only got better. And, if you’ll allow me to gratuitously add, all the more beautiful. She’s playing a quite icy and inscrutable character here but at no time does it become blank or expressionless as could so easily have been the case in less capable hands. She gives orders to officers she doesn’t know with the utter surety of being obeyed without question; we can sense her exasperation that her break-through lead in the case is blocked, but despite this Gibson never breaks her professional demeanour or acts improperly. She even has one run-in with a loathsome local journalist (Nick Lee, played by Ned Callan) and manages to make a standard PR line about how important and helpful the media can be in the work of the police into a slam-dunk put-down that sends even the hack scurrying off to safety.
Anderson, then, delivers to the absolute highest expectations, and her British accent is also note-perfect. Seriously, British actresses can’t pull it off this well. That could make it hard for anyone to play opposite her in the other main role as Spector, and when you learn that the part has gone to a former Calvin Klein model turned singer-songwriter then you’d be forgiven for having some cause for concern. It’s not quite Jamie Dornan’s first acting gig – he also played Sheriff Graham (and The Huntsman) in US series Once Upon A Time – but it’s worryingly close.
Well, no matter: Dornan is compulsively excellent here in what is an unusually subtle and nuanced portrayal of a serial rapist and killer, the kind of role that could easily go terribly wrong but which here is captured quite beautifully by its underplaying. The character’s depression is not spelled out in banner headlines, and he’s sufficiently off-kilter to the viewing audience to grab our attention without making us wonder why none of the characters in the story notice anything is out of place with him. When he transforms into his ‘night stalker’ guise he’s genuinely chilling, the former model’s features becoming something quite darkly different when viewed creeping through a woman’s bedroom. He makes Dexter look bright, cheery and rather crass by comparison. (Ironically given Anderson’s perfect English accent, I was puzzled by Dornan not seeming to have an Irish accent for his part. Then I found out the actor’s actually from County Down so it seems he really does know what he’s doing with it after all!)
There are other characters that are only just coming into focus as well, and it’s to the drama’s strength and realism that none of them react quite as we’d probably expect them to if they were the usual stereotypes. An example is the two uniformed police officers who check out the home of Spector’s next target (Sarah Kay, played by Laura Donnelly) after she reports a break-in during which nothing significant appears to have been taken. You can sense the heavy scepticism of the officers (“oh, just another hysterical woman who has had too much to drink at the bar”) but it’s not over-played by the actors and nothing overt is said; then later, after picking up on a passing comment from Gibson, the female WPC (Danielle Ferrington played by Niamh McGrady) makes a commendable and lightning-quick connection to the earlier case and insists that they do a callback just in case.
It’s the heart-stopping moment of the first episode when they’re at the house ringing the door bell, and only we know that they’re already too late.
The Fall continues on BBC on Monday nights at 9pm. It’s encouraging to see that it opened with an average audience of 3.5 million viewers (peaking at 3.6 million) and 15.4% share (meaning it won its time slot) making it the highest drama series launch on the channel since HBO’s Rome in 2005. The series is released on DVD on Monday, June 17 2013.