Yesterday we took a look at ITV’s new crime noir Marcella created by Hans Rosenfeldt, who is the writer behind The Bridge which is arguably the apex of recent Swedish/Danish Nordic Noir triumphs.
By an intriguing coincidence, this week also sees the start of The Five which is another writer-led murder mystery. This time the star attraction is an American in the form of bestselling author Harlen Coben, who has sold millions of books around the world. Just as Marcella is a vintage example of Rosenfeldt’s work, so The Five also has a shape and form that will be familiar to anyone who has read Coben’s thrillers, being as it is a story in which a past trauma surfaces in the modern day to devastating effect.
In the case of The Five, the trauma at the heart of the story is the memory of a fateful day 20 years ago when five young friends went off to play in the woods near their home. Only four came home: the youngest of them, five-year-old Danny Wells, disappeared without trace and no one seems to know where he went or what happened to him. He’s presumed dead, but who can be sure?
The barely-healed wounds are reopened in the modern day when Jesse’s DNA is found in a hotel room in which a woman has been violently murdered. The lead investigating officer (Danny Kenward, played by The Investigator’s OT Fagbenle) was one of the four children present in the forest that day, and his now-senile father Ray (Don Warrington) was the detective who worked the missing persons case. Danny quickly informs his best friend, Jesse’s older brother Mark (Downton Abbey’s Tom Cullen) of the discovery, who in turn tells his devastated parents (Geraldine James and Michael Maloney). Also soon in the loop are the others who were there in the forest that day Jesse disappeared: Slade (Lee Ingleby), who now runs a refuge centre for abused woman; and Pru (Sarah Solemani), who is a high-flying doctor recently returned from many years in the US.
In the first episode, Danny traces a mobile phone used at the crime scene to track down a suspect who may or may not be Jesse, but whose odious (and suspiciously high-priced) lawyer prevents them from taking DNA to check. Meanwhile Mark visits convicted sex offender Jakob Marosi (Rade Serbedzija) in prison to question the man’s confession about having killed Jesse, and is unsettled when Marosi hints that one of the children in that forest might know more about what happened to Jesse than they’ve been letting on.
In a similar vein to how Rosenfeldt constructs his dramas, The Five grows from this initial keen focus to include a number of of other seemingly unconnected stories. The series is confident enough to end the first episode on a genuine “WTF?!” cliffhanger out of the blue that completely transforms our perception of one character, only to then barely follow it up or mention it again at all in the next while our attentions are directed elsewhere when the latest arrival at Slade’s refuge is revealed as having been kept as a sex slave for years at a hidden location. That leads Danny to take time out from his murder case to try and track down other victims, culminating in an impromptu tour around the immaculately soundproofed house of a has-been music producer.
Despite the high visibility of Coben’s name on this project the actual writing is handled by BAFTA and Emmy Award-winning writer Danny Brocklehurst (Shameless, Clocking Off, Exile, Ordinary Lies) and the series does a very good job in believably fleshing out the characters of its four main protagonists. Fagbenle makes Danny a particularly credible presence, someone who is an ordinary, decent police officer and family man who simply gets on with the job and rolls his eyes at sundry distractions and work colleagues mucking around without any of the patience-stretching maverick quirks of so many TV detectives these days (see, for example, Marcella).
Cullen has a slightly more difficult ride of it as the nominal lead, with Mark haunted by not knowing what happened to his brother and now crushed to find that his latest romantic interest is cheating on him (with her ex-husband, of all people.) It’s clear that there are still strong feelings between Mark and Pru, and Solemani does well to convey a concealed sense of marital disappointment with her American husband (Jonathan Kerrigan, with a dubious US accent) who is seemingly never off the phone. Meanwhile Ingleby impresses with a tricky role, his character immediately under suspicion because of his access to vulnerable young woman and yet at the same time giving the strong impression of being an essentially honourable and committed social worker.
Overall it’s a gripping and well-constructed story with interesting characters and all-round excellent performances. And yet despite this, I nonetheless came very close to bailing out and not watching any more after the first episode.
The Achilles Heel of The Five – for me at least – was in the direction by Mark Tonderai which proved violently distracting, like trying to watch television as a very young hyperactive child with a severe case of ADHD bounces up and down in one’s lap for the entire hour screaming ‘Look at me! Look at me!”. It simply tries too hard on every single shot, with over-kinetic editing and flash jumps, combined with intrusive tilt-shifting and exceptionally tight depth-of-field focus into which the characters had to walk into or out of. There were extreme close-ups and obsessive odd cropping of parts of people’s faces, together with show-off overhead angles and needless tracking shots, all of which was permanently jarring as it did its utmost to divert our attention away from the plot and the performances – all of which is really quite unnecessary.
Thankfully these problems were toned down a notch in the second episode or else I might have succumbed to my incipient migraine and called it a day, but it remained an irritating and annoying distraction to what would otherwise be a compelling drama – since if nothing else, that core question which kick starts the entire show – what happened to Jesse and is he still alive? – is enough to make me want to continue watching to find out the answers.
With so much to recommend it, the fact that it’s proving this difficult to stay with The Five is a huge shame, one that I still continue to hope is quietly rectified over the remaining eight episodes.
Rating: ★ ★ ★
The Five continues on Sky One with double episodes from 9pm on Fridays