Amber E1 (BBC4)

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The great thing about the success of Nordic Noir in the UK is that it’s led broadcasters to cherrypick the best drama from all across Europe in a way that they would never have considered before. Already this year, in addition to drama from Sweden and Denmark, we’ve had top quality productions from Italy, Germany, Belgium and Norway, as well as a welcome national airing for the Welsh detective series Hinterland.

amberThis week – slightly tucked away on the schedules and not receiving the sort of advance publicity you would expect – it’s the turn of Ireland to get some airtime in the form of RTE’s Amber, a four-part mini-series created by Rob Cawley and Paul Duane that focuses on the case of Dublin teenager Amber Bailey who abruptly goes missing without a trace. The show traces the investigation, and the effect of her disappearance on her family and on the others involved

There are some very good performances here: for her short time on screen, Lauryn Canny makes a particularly strong impact as Amber while Eva Birthistle takes the main role as her distraught mother Sarah, separated from husband Ben (David Murray) who was the last person to see Amber before she vanished while on her way to a friend’s house. The production design and direction (by Thaddeus O’Sullivan) are very matter of fact, striving for a realistic documentary style which allows for few stand-out moments – although one scene where Sarah imagines herself sitting across from her daughter on a tram is certainly an effective, heart-rending exception.

The series tells the story using a different character as the centre point for each episode, so there are events hinted at that will only be explained in subsequent episodes when they are ‘told’ by different characters. In the first, it’s Sarah whose point of view we largely follow and consequently she is the most developed character, whereas others such as the police investigation team are little more than cyphers. However that’s not hard and fast and there are scenes during the episode that Sarah is not party to; the show breaks format entirely at the end to loop backwards and show previously unseen details from the original disappearance depicting what Amber did when she was alone. Although it supplies little that we haven’t already surmised from what we’ve seen, this does feel like a little bit of a cheat on the format.

But it’s the creative decision to show the unfolding developments by way of short vignettes from different stages of the investigation that are preceded by a date card (“Day 27”) that is the main problem with the show. In the course of the 50-minute episode we cover a half year which is far too much in that sort of the airtime to depict in any serious detail, so some of the scenes last only a minute or two before suddenly the dates roll on another week or two. It’s meant to show us the overall shape of the investigation and how things change and develop, but instead it just feels like the whole thing is on fast forward. It completely denies us the feeling of how dreadfully these months of uncertainty and not knowing must weigh down the family.

It also leaves the characters feeling very choppy and inconsistent: their mental states have moved on so much from scene to scene that they end up feeling jerky and unnatural, undermining the strong performances from the actors. That further acts as a barrier to the audience getting involved in the drama in the way that we did with similar situations in Broadchurch and Forbrydelsen which frankly went a lot further in depicting the depths of grief and suffering of the family in such cases.

Instead we get a highlight reel, full of the images sadly familiar from too many real-life cases of missing children: assembling a team of volunteers to search the area; the initial press conference to appeal for Amber’s safe return; the discovery of CCTV footage and the first physical evidence; the waning of public interest in the case and the winding up of the police investigation; Sarah left as the obsessive lone champion of the campaign; the need to do a deal with the devil to get tabloid coverage. The series seems content to trot through these landmarks of a generic missing child case without really adding anything original of its own and consequently becomes less engaging with each leap forward in time.

Broadly, then, this series is quite far away from hitting the sort of heights of Broadchurch. At least on the evidence of the first episode it mainly appears to demonstrate how difficult it is to do something new and compelling in this area of drama these days. But that said, the situation could be transformed by how it handles a new point of view character in the second episode, and overall it’s engaging enough that you really do want to find out what actually happened to Amber.

If the show really has any genuine claim to distinctiveness then it will consider never revealing to the family or to us the audience what happened, which would be more haunting and cruel – and tragically much closer to what happens in real life. However that sort of non-resolution is a tough sell to make to TV executives, in which case the way they actually conclude the story will be make-or-break to the show’s success as a whole.

Amber airs on Tuesdays at 9pm on BBC4 and is available on BBC iPlayer. The series is currently scheduled for a DVD release in the UK on June 23, 2104 from Arrow Films.

2 thoughts on “Amber E1 (BBC4)

    Paul Duane (@MrPaulDuane) said:
    June 6, 2014 at 11:24 am

    Hi Andrew – thanks for your thoughtful review! Without giving anything away, I think you should stick with the show as your last paragraph reveals you are very much in line with the way it’s constructed (full disclosure: I co-produced/co-wrote it).

      andrewlewin responded:
      June 6, 2014 at 1:11 pm

      And thanks for taking the time to comment! It always amazes me that anyone at all reads my witterings, let along one of the co-creators of the programme in question.

      I’ll definitely be sticking with the drama to the end – there’s no question that the first episode did more than enough to make me want to find out what happened to Amber (a great performance by Lauryn Canny, I thought.)

      It’s always tricky reviewing the first episode of a whodunnit or a mini-series, because how subsequent episodes unfold can entirely change how one feels about the series as a whole; but on the other hand waiting till the end to write it means the review is too late to be of use to anyone. If that that proves to be the case here then I’ll be happy to post an update – it would be far from the first time I’ve ended up with a ‘ReTake’ on this blog (even including “Broadchurch”!)

      In any case, I’m certainly glad it’s getting an airing in the UK for people to try it for themselves.

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