shadow line

A quick top ten of 2011

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Everyone else is doing one of these Top Ten “best of” things, so why shouldn’t I? In fact the blog feels positively underdressed without one.

So here goes, the best of 2011 as seen in the pages of Taking The Short View:

10. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

A real treat for lovers of classic old silent movies, this new Blu-ray release contains four different versions of the quite brilliant Lon Chaney masterpiece that inspired the current musical production in several ways. (Fans of this period of cinema might also like to take a read of my Hallowe’en review of the original Nosferatu German expressionist film from 1922.)

9. The Shadow Line

In the end, this thriller mini-series couldn’t quite sustain the quality all the way through to the end, but it had some magic moments including a bravura seven-minute opening sequence beginning with an abstract overhead vantage point as two policemen with flash lights investigate a corpse shot dead in a car in the middle of nowhere. Stephen Rea’s character of Gatehouse was compelling and Rafe Spall stole a whole bunch of scenes with his giggling, Joker-eseque menace.

8. Watercolours

In terms of shows that I’ve seen at the Tate this year, this was probably the most successful. A very well put together exhibition which really demonstrated the history of watercolours down the ages, and the wide variety of techniques that have led to a huge diversity of results with the medium.

7. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

An excellent re-imagining of the classic espionage story that was soaked in 70s atmosphere and even managed to escape the long shadow cast by the superb BBC adaptation starring Alec Guinness. Gary Oldman was flawless as Smiley, and among an all-star cast it also proved how stand-out Benedict Cumberbatch is these days, as he had one of the most gripping sequences in the entire film.

6. Super 8

If you’re the right age and happened to be growing up in the 70s just as the best Steven Spielberg movies were being released, then this wonderful movie will transport you right back to your childhood. Intelligent writing that puts the emotions and experiences of the young lead characters ahead of flashy monster FX (but equally doesn’t stint on those when the time comes either) this was a throwback to the very highest quality film making.

5. Doctor Who – The Doctor’s Wife

I’ve had my doubts and reservations about this latest series of Doctor Who even as I’ve faithfully reviewed every one of the year’s episodes. But when it came to this Neil Gaiman-scripted episode and also “The Girl Who Waited” I have nothing but praise: wonderful stuff, some of the best work in the series’ long and illustrious history.

4. The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall

I’d dismissed this as a bit of an shallow money-making stunt when I heard about it, but one viewing of the Blu-ray left me in awe of the quality of the production and what they were able to achieve staging this in a less-than-ideal venue for such an ambitious theatrical production. The performances are exceptional, and for any Phantom fan wanting a recording of the stage production this is the best there is.

3. The Shadow Over Innsmouth

A gripping and highly atmospheric audio adaptation of the HP Lovecraft story that was at times genuinely unnerving despite being “just” a one-man reading of the text and not a full-cast adaptation. It even managed to surpass the same production team’s excellent version of “At The Mountains of Madness” from 2010. Don’t overlook the same team’s “Tales of Max Carrados” about the turn of the century blind detective, either.

2. Senna

This brilliantly put-together documentary about the life and career and tragic death of the F1 racing legend had me struggling to maintain my composure when I left the cinema and not burst into tears. An extraordinary achievement in film making.

1. Forbrydelsen/The Killing

Without doubt the highlight of the year, and one that I very nearly talked myself of watching at the very start. Absolutely stellar quality, and a lead character and performance of the very highest quality together with engrossing storylines that grab you by the throat and won’t let go until after the final credits roll. Reviewed in this blog several times, especially episodes 17-18 of series 1 and episodes 9-10 of season 2.

That’s it – just time to thank everyone who has been to visit Taking the Short View in 2011 and wish you all a very Happy New Year indeed for 2012

The Shadow Line – Ep1

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Caution: contains spoilers

It’s been a very strange week for TV drama. After months of domestic drama drought we suddenly get overloaded with Exile, Vera, Case Sensitive – and now this conspiracy thriller boasting a staggering cast including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Christopher Eccleston, Lesley Sharp, Tobias Menzies, Rafe Spall, Sir Antony Sher and Stephen Rea. Whoa.

I had high hopes for this because I do love a good conspiracy thriller – State of Play is one of my all time favourite BBC shows. How does this measure up by comparison?

In the BBC2 trailers leading up to the show’s first instalment, much play is made of this being a thriller by Hugo Blick: I guess we’re supposed to know the name but I confess it was totally new to me. Turns out he made the highly regarded comedy Marion and Geoff that launched Rob Brydon as a star, but I couldn’t see why that warranted him getting Hitchcockian above-the-title credit, even if he was the writer, director and producer of the darn thing.

Having seen the first episode, I am happy to reappraise those doubts: Blick has produced something rather special here and deserves every bit of the kudos in return. Often, we Brits lament how come we can’t produce television as good as The Wire from the US, or The Killing (Forbrydelsen) from Denmark. Well, The Shadow Line essentially shows that we can, and potentially have – right here, right now.

The visual style of the first episode is wonderful (although it will have to reign it in a little as the show goes on if it’s to avoid overdoing it.) It’s summed up by the first scene, a seven minute sequence of two policemen investigating a body found in a car in the woods. It’s virtually monochrome, all high contrast black and chrome with the two uniformed officers looking pale and blanched and only the victim’s blood adding colour; the first shot is from overhead, showing the flashlights of the policemen as they approach the car. Later on, when the forensic team arrive, the brilliantly-lit pure white tent they erect over the crime scene is more like a spaceship than anything earthly.

As well as the visual style, it’s also a programme that allows the script and moreover the actors time and space to breath and develop their characters, and the result is truly compelling and top-notch. The flashiest turn is from Rafe Spall as the murder victim’s nephew: he’s a damaged, deranged psychotic who looks like he wants to take on the world, who laughs and grins when he shouldn’t, and is utterly unpredictable and dangerous. Spall has a terrific time in this role and I found him compulsively watchable.

Christopher Eccleston gets the quieter role as a “business associate” of the murder victim, a quiet man who looks like he should be a mid-ranking civil servant but instead finds himself trying to control violent criminals, while also coping with the decline of his wife (the ever-brilliant Lesley Sharp) from early-onset Alzheimers – and how odd that both BBC drama series this week have had key characters with that terrible affliction? You can see every thought, every fear flash across Eccleston’s face as he tries to stay one twist ahead of everyone else, and it’s a role he suits far better than he ever did Doctor Who.

It’s great to have Chiwetel Ejiofor back on loan from Hollywood. You feel that there should be some big aspect to the story about the lead detective being black, but actually the colour of his skin is the least interesting thing to him: of more interest is the bullet in his brain, how it came to be there and what personality changes it has caused; and then of course the small matter of a briefcase of cash that he doesn’t know anything about.

What’s particularly outstanding about the first episode is how the “supporting” cast are also universally good and stand-out – anyone of them could carry a show of their own. In particular, all the characters are simply excellent at their jobs: too often we get plots driven by stupid people doing stupid things and making mistakes, but here you feel everyone is lethally efficient. There’s the superbly named Lia Honey (Kierston Wareing playing Ejiofor’s sergeant) who is way ahead of her boss; Maurice Crace (Malcolm Storry as Eccleston’s enforcer), able to improvise an ambush on some pursuing villains and then walk calmly over to their wrecked car to ask “What the f*** do you want?” as he brandishes a baton); Ross McGovern (Tobias Menzies) as a tenacious journalist; and Patterson (Richard Lintern as Ejiofor’s boss) who clearly has his own agenda). Add in the always wonderful David Schofield as the corrupt Sgt Foley who dominates that throat-grabbing first seven minute scene and you have as good an ensemble as you could hope to see in any TV programme.

We haven’t even been introduced to Stephen Rea’s character Gatehouse yet, or know who Anthony Sher will be. Maybe he will play the shadowy figure of Glickman, who has been much talked about but – like Harry Lime in The Third Man or Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects – is still legend and myth and has not yet been glimpsed in person.

With seven parts in total, it’s too early to declare whether this will be a classic TV show – it could all go horribly pear-shaped at some point. But based on the quality, confidence and verve of the first episode I don’t think so. It’s in safe and exciting hands and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it develops.