After the success of the Scandi-inflected Broadchurch, ITV has elected to go to the source for its next bout of Nordic Noir by signing up The Bridge creator and lead writer Hans Rosenfeldt to write an original crime noir for the channel in the form of Marcella.
Although Rosenfeldt’s writing is not without its rough edges (there’s a jarring problem with the plotting of the first season of The Bridge for example) I’m generally speaking an enthusiastic fan of his work, to the extent that I recent read and enjoyed his novel featuring Swedish profiler Sebastian Bergman co-written with Wallander producer Michael Hjorth. Bergman himself is a clear riff off Robbie Coltrane’s anti-social character in Cracker augmented with an unnecessary tragic past, but the case (the murder of a high school teen in a suburban community) and the high-profile investigating team of officers with different specialisms dispatched from the capital make the novel very readable. Originally called Dark Secret it was retitled Sebastian Bergman in the UK to tie in with the Swedish mini-series that was made from it; a sequel called The Man Who Watched Women has since followed, and The Man Who Wasn’t There is published in June.
Rosenfeldt is clearly partial, therefore, to having an unforgivably anti-social lead protagonist: as well as Bergman (who goes out of his way to wind people up) and The Bridge’s Saga Noren (who does it unknowingly because of her pseudo-autistic personality), we can now add former detective Marcella Backland, the eponymous star of ITV’s new eight-part murder-mystery played by Anna Friel who is arguably still best known for her stint on British soap Brookside in the early 1990s.
Rosenfeldt’s stylistic fingerprints are all over Marcella, as we start off with the same mix of seemingly unconnected characters and storylines that will be familiar to anyone who has ever watched The Bridge. It’s this approach that makes Rosenfeldt’s work so appealing and compelling, and it’s well supported by some stylish but unobtrusive direction from Charles Martin and cinematography from Ula Pontikos that makes south London feel both familiar and oddly unsettling, glamorous and seedy all at the same time, while underneath it all is a threatening, pulsing soundtrack from composer Lorne Balfe.
All of that makes Marcella worth watching, and I certainly want to know how it all works out, who the killer is and whether it’s Macella’s prime suspect Peter Cullen (Ian Puleston-Davies), but moreover I’m just as keen to know what happens to the rest of the sprawling ensemble which includes Sinéad Cusack, Jamie Bamber, Harry Lloyd, Laura Carmichael, Ray Panthaki, Charlie Covell, Patrick Baladi and Andrew Lancel.
However I do have a rather large concern with the series, and that’s with the character of Marcella herself. Talented and capable a performer as Friel certainly is, here she presents Marcella as being more akin to a sulky teen than a professional detective.
In trying to reinvent the success of The Bridge’s Saga it rather feels like Rosenfeldt has returned once too often to the same well for his own good. Instead of Saga’s autistic traits, Marcella’s defining quirk is a chronic issue of amnesia kicking in during stressful situations accompanied by an apparent serious violent streak during her ‘blackouts’ – all of which is not only highly unlikely (and utterly unbelievable for a serving police detective) but feels mainly like a gimmick for the writers to indulge in to keep certain facts hidden from both the participants themselves and the audience in general in order to artificially heighten the tension.
Furthermore, the character of Marcella as a whole deeply lacks credibility: she’s been on a career break to raise a family for the last seven years yet seems to have little emotional connection with either her philandering husband Jason (Nicholas Pinnock) or her daughter caught taking drugs at her private school. However, one whiff of the return of ‘the killer who got away’ 11 years previously has her picking up a phone demanding reinstatement as a detective sergeant, and next day she’s back at the office working within a top murder task force without even a hint of a reorientation/refresher course. And boy, does she need one: she leaves a self-incriminating trail while illegally viewing CCTV footage and with her unsubtle online search records that even the most amateur of perpetrators would know better than to do, and when she does find a dead body she manages to paw at it in a way that seems designed to leave her fingerprints and DNA all over the crime scene.
Worse, that victim turns out to be her estranged husband’s lover of three years standing who also happened to have been six weeks pregnant. It’s a bizarre coincidence by anyone’s standards, yet even when this emerges Marcella is allowed to continue working the case. At least the rest of the investigating team have the good manners to look shocked at this absurd decision by their commanding officer DCI Laura Porter (Nina Sosanya). In any case, Marcella’s already antagonised everyone at work by continuing to target Cullen for the latest murders despite orders to leave him well alone and a seemingly bullet-proof alibi; naturally, by the end of episode three, there are strong indications that she might have had the right idea all along.
That’s as maybe, but the failure of Marcella as a character for me is eroding my enjoyment of Marcella as a TV series. If only Rosenfeldt had dropped the gimmicks and allowed her to be a real, credible person then this might have been a really strong series to match the likes of Broadchurch and The Bridge, because as it is the authenticity problem at the centre of the show is overshadowing all the good things going on around it.
Rating: ★ ★ ★
Marcella continues on ITV on Mondays at 9pm and is released in the UK on DVD on June 20. It will be distributed internationally by Netflix.