Damian Lewis

Our Kind of Traitor (2016) [DVD]

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Apologies for the unexpected hiatus of Taking The Short View over the last month and a half. The simple truth is there’s been a strange dearth of things of late that have inspired me to write reviews, despite the start of a brand new season of television shows.

traitorBut let’s rectify the situation and get things back on track with a review of a film released earlier this year and now available on DVD. It’s an adaptation of a John Le Carré novel, following in the footsteps of other recent films based on the authors work such as 2011’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and 2014’s A Most Wanted Man, not to mention the phenomenally successful television mini-series of The Night Manager.

Our Kind Of Traitor starts off with husband and wife Perry and Gail McKendrick (Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris) taking a holiday in Marrakech seeking to repair their troubled marriage. Instead they get caught in the orbit of the flamboyant Dima (Stellan Skarsgård) who is a money man for the Russian Mafia who now fears for his life and that of his family. He asks Perry to take a memory stick back to London to hand over to British intelligence represented by Hector (Damian Lewis) and Luke (Khalid Abdalla), but it doesn’t stop there and the McKendricks find themselves getting sucked deeper and deeper into a deadly game of undercover work. Read the rest of this entry »

Wolf Hall E1 “Three Card Trick” (BBC2)

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wolf-dvdThe much-anticipated, no-expense-spared BBC television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s multi-award-winning books about King Henry VIII’s advisor Thomas Cromwell hit the screens this week and achieved one of the largest audience figures for a new drama on the channel in a decade, together with near-unanimous praise from the critics.

It was good to be sure, but for myself I have to say I was slightly disappointed that it wasn’t even better, twisted and ungrateful though that sounds. I loved Mantel’s original book after which the series is named (the latter half of the six-episode run will be based on the sequel, Bring Up The Bodies) and found it one of the best books I’d ever read, whereas this all-star screen version is … merely excellent television. Read the rest of this entry »

Homeland S1 E12

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Contains spoilers – big ones – only read once you’ve seen all of season 1.

I reviewed the first three episodes of Homeland two months ago, and came to the conclusion that I was missing something: that I simply didn’t feel as wowed by the show as everyone else seemed to be.

I can’t say that I have really shifted from that position since then over the rest of its run. It was well made and certainly very well acted – again, let me just emphasis how terrific Damian Lewis, Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin were; and kudos also to Morena Baccarin and David Harewood. Story-wise it felt a little disjointed, uneven and inconsistent, moving through several different distinct phases in the course of a very short season. Some of the character progressions were just too jarring to go along with, even factoring in the mental instability of Danes’ character Carrie Mathison as she went from being ultra suspicious of Lewis’ ex-PoW marine Brody to falling in love with him in rather record time, while still believing him to be a terrorist. Other plot threads and supporting characters felt as though they were spun out to fill an episode before being dropped and never mentioned again; alternative plot opportunities went untried.

Any show has a fair measure of these rough edges, of course. A show can still be great even with them present. For example, I’m the first to admit that the Danish series Forbrydelsen – which I totally adore beyond reason – has all sorts of loose ends and contradictions. But somehow in the case of Homeland these flaws didn’t contribute to a richer experience so much as they just irritated.

Perhaps I’m just taking it personally that they went ahead and made Brody into a terrorism convert after all. In my earlier review I’d concluded that they wouldn’t, at least not clearly or overtly, because this would paint the picture that anyone who adheres to Islamic faith must de facto be a clear and present threat. In 24 you’d expect that; but surely they wouldn’t do that sort of knee-jerk jingoism in a high-brow serious drama like Homeland? Well, it turns out that they would, and indeed did (it was obvious it was going to happen the minute Brody’s fellow ex-PoW Tom Walker popped up to deflect suspicion.) Even if the story did successfully nuance the issue with Brody’s reasons for his actions and make it clear that the targets of his revenge were essentially outright war criminals, it’s still a distinction that will be lost on the majority of viewers who will be far more influenced and shaken by the sight of Brody in full US army uniform wearing a suicide bomber’s vest: the ultimate traitor.

Despite all my reservations about the show, the final episode – the double-length season finale – almost converted me. The whole first hour as the assassination started to play out was staggeringly well executed on screen. It was as good a piece of nerve-wracking suspense as I think I’ve seen done on television in a very long time indeed: Hitchcockian, indeed (the ultimate praise in my book.) It also saw a credible, intelligent assassination plot which brought together various strands and hints from earlier episodes and made sense of it all as it played out. At that moment – with Brody in the bunker with the Vice President, Estes, the defence secretary and the rest of those he knows to be responsible for a war atrocity – the series was poised on the edge of greatness. And then it fluffed it.

Dramatically speaking, the correct play at that point was for the bomb to be detonated. Everything had led up to it. While obviously we don’t support, condone or cheer on terrorist actions either in fiction let alone in the real world, for the bomb not to go off at that point leaves the series climax without any climax at all: just a meek sort of “Oh … okay then, let’s just tidy up and reset everything.” If you’ve had the courage to take the audience on this painstaking two-month journey, then at least have the episode end on a cliffhanger: will he or won’t he? Don’t answer it anticlimactically well before the end of the episode.

But this is where commercial television priorities trump the dramatic requirements. The broadcaster (US premium cable channel Showtime) has a hit on its hands – one that even has President Obama watching and inviting the stars over for dinner as a consequence – and so the thought of it ending there and then is simply unpalatable to the executives. The show must go on, regardless of how it’s achieved. And since Damian Lewis is a big star as a result of the show, they certainly can’t have him exit the series by being vaporised in a ball of flame. Hence the whole thing has to be backed down and reset so that we can go through a second season next year.

Yet where exactly does it go from here? Carrie is no longer in the CIA, which is a problem (unless she’s magically welcomed back after all despite everyone saying it can’t happen.) We the audience now know Brody’s true intentions and motivations: although he’ll likely try to back away from Abu Nazir and rehabilitate himself in season 2, he’ll doubtless get blackmailed back in by the existence of the video recording of his suicide statement. Walker is dead. Do we really care enough about whether Abu Nazir is captured? Or whether the Vice President’s dark secret comes to light? Not really: we now know the secrets that were buried in the show at the start, and a fresh load of plots will just feel like pale imitation by comparison, as would a new assassination attempt.

At least if the bomb had exploded it would have projected the show into genuinely new and bold territory and asked fresh questions. Would Brody’s recording have been aired or would everyone be left wondering what had gone on in that sealed bunker? Having been proved right about the imminent danger to the Vice President, Carrie would have been rushed back into the CIA fold as soon as she was treated, regardless: or worse, she could publicly reveal that the CIA bungled and that the plot was preventable. What would happen to Brody’s family – would they know the truth or would daughter Dana be left in agonising uncertainty? What would the reaction have been to the revelation of Vice President’s drone strike secret – would it turn people against the government, perhaps even inspire sympathy for the terrorists? What would the CIA do about Nazir? Was there a next step to his plan that involved someone other than Brody and Walker that we didn’t get to see?

There’s a rich vein of untapped dramatic potential here, but none of this will happen now because the show must go on and it couldn’t afford to lose its star. I sympathise in a way as Damian Lewis together with Claire Danes were and are definitely the main reasons to watch the show. But sometimes broadcasters should realise that the perfect length for a program is precisely one series, and that not everything needs to be spun out over several years until the things that made it work in the first place are threadbare and worn out, and the shine has well and truly gone off the whole venture.

At which point, doubtless Sky would step in and buy up UK rights to the show and shunt it off to some channel where we can’t see it without paying subscriptions, like they have with everything else of late. In the meantime, expect series 2 at least of Homeland back on Channel 4 either in the late autumn or in the New Year. You’ll have to wait almost as long for the DVD of the first season to come out on October 1, I’m afraid.

Sky Arts is to show the original Israeli mini-series “Prisoners of War” from which Homeland was adapted, starting on Thursday May 10 at 9.30pm.

Homeland S1 E1-3

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I feel I’m missing something about Homeland, the new US drama series from the Showtime cable channel now airing in the UK. The story of a US marine who comes home after eight years as an Al-Qaeda captive, this remake of the Israeli series Hatufim comes lavished with praise from Barack Obama on down, and yet it’s just not quite clicking for me.

That’s certainly not fault of the acting, with is first rate. I’d expected Britain’s Damian Lewis to be the star of the show as the returning POW, Nicholas Brody – and his performance is certainly excellent – but in fact it’s Claire Danes as weirdly over-intense CIA operations officer Carrie Mathison who provides the most fascinating and compelling character in the show, grappling with her own psychological demons (that appear to be either paranoia or manic depression at this point.) Another Brit, David Harewood, is flawless as her antagonistic boss, and it’s great to see V’s arch-lizard Morena Baccarin get a chance to play a more nuanced and rounded role as Brody’s wife struggling to come to terms with her husband’s return after nearly a decade. There’s also Mandy Patinkin as Carrie’s mentor, doing much the same sort of turn that he always does (although older and more serious); but given his troubled history with TV series in the past, every time he’s on screen I half expect him to stand up mid-scene and walk off the set, never to return.

The direction is unflashy and nothing special, but that’s surely intentional as they strive for a naturalistic tone to the story. There’s still some nice touches: the moment when Brody settles down in bed unaware that his every move is captured on surveillance cameras, intercut with Carrie settling down to sleep on her couch while watching the screens so that the two appear to be sharing a wordless moment of intimacy before turning out the lights, even though Brody has no idea that she’s there. It certainly contrasts with Brody and his wife’s later disastrous attempts at sexual intimacy, which are so painfully uncomfortable to watch that even Carrie swats the screen away so that she doesn’t have to carry on seeing it either.

So for the most part this is a slow-paced study of a life under a microscope (Brody’s in the show, but Carrie’s as well to the TV audience.) It’s full of little moments, half-spoken feelings, unfinished sentences and awkward, self-conscious actions, quirks and ticks. In the show the central question is surely “Has Brody been brainwashed by Al-Qaeda into a Manchurian Candidate turncoat?” but the audience is likely to be as interested in “What are Carrie Mathison’s demons?”

It’s just as well that there’s a backup, because the Brody question is as problematic to the show as it is central. It has a binary yes/no answer that must, sooner or later, be answered. And if it’s answered ‘yes’ then what it does is to affirm all the extremists, fascists and bigots who assume that anyone who speaks a few words of Arabic let alone observes Muslim prayers must inevitably be a sleeper cell terrorist plotting mass murder. It’s hard to believe that the show will go down that grotesquely stereotyped route, which is the preserve of the likes of the obsessively patriotic and militaristic 24 and JAG type of shows. Homeland seems more situated in the liberal view of shades of grey, which means that Brody is most likely innocent of having been turned – albeit highly damaged by the post-traumatic stress he’s endured. (And if the US Army really does dump returning heroes back on their home doorsteps in the full glare of the media, after perfunctory debriefs and with no practical or psychological help to help them readjust, then it’s really a damning indictment of the American military mindset.)

Oddly one of the most interesting ideas the show has is currently the preserve of the opening titles, which shows the history of terror attacks against the US over the last 30 decades through the eyes of the young Carrie Mathison growing up watching the news on TV. This appears to give the implication that the psychological demons with which the character is now afflicted have been triggered or exacerbated by the fear- and paranoia-promoting media and political rhetoric that Carrie has lived with all her life; that the War on Terror (rather than terrorism directly per se) has brutalised her psyche as she grew up and has left her deeply damaged. When she says that as a young CIA officer she must have missed vital clues leading up to 9/11, she’s not satisfied by her mentor saying “We all did” and insists that she cannot let it happen again, taking upon herself a full and personal responsibility for all that happened on that tragic day. That obsessive compulsive paranoid tendency has warped her life for the next decade; just as, reading between the lines, it’s also done to the American national and political psyche.

That’s a really deep, profound and controversial suggestion to make in a TV show – not one you’d get in a mainstream network show, which would be far too scared to imply any such train of thought even buried as opening credit subtext. To even hint to the audience that they themsevles and their beloved country as a whole are psychologically clinically ill as a result of the politicians’, the media’s and their own reactions to the threat of terrorism is surely incendiary?

But if that’s really what’s simmering away underneath the surface of the show, it’s currently all too deeply buried for the time being. At the moment this show is just too self-consciously and pretentiously slow-moving for me. It’s not that I need or even like the ADHD-style of TV entertainment that serves up car chases and explosions every five minutes, but this just isn’t serving up enough on the surface to keep me engrossed while it decides whether or not to do anything worthwhile with the controversial subtext. Look instead at something like The Killing, which is equally glacial in its pacing and obsessed with the slow accretion of small details to make the big picture, and yet made each and every minute of that process both tense and utterly absorbing, impossible to look away for even a single second.

Homeland just doesn’t do that for me in the first three episodes. I want it to get a move on, and at the same time suspect that they won’t be able to live up to the expectations of a destination remarkable enough to have made the investment in the journey worthwhile.

Currently airing on Sunday evenings on Channel 4.