The Brits usually know how to create a superior production… when it comes to costume dramas. Where suspense is concerned, I think American productions can keep pace with them. This BBC/Masterpiece Theatre Mystery! series was something that interested me after reading glowing reports on it and while it can hold up to the best of them, it is also a bit too ambiguous for its own good.
A convicted man who was accused of murder but never admitted guilt has just been released after his year’s long prison sentence. Now along with his sons, he has but one thing on his mind: revenge. His short list of people consists of the judge who read the guilty verdict, a cooperating snitch who was given a new identity and the lead detective who was responsible for the arrest. His idea of vengeance knows no limits.
Aurelio Zen (Rufus Sewell) has a case now where he is being instructed to two different conclusions by two contradictory authorities, both of who want very different outcomes. His boss (Stanley Townsend) wants the convicted murderer (Greg Wise) to stay imprisoned irrespective of his new claim to innocence, he confessed to the murder at the time and that is good enough for Mosceti while the prime minister and his aide Colonna (Ben Miles) want to see the man exonerated. Colonna expects nothing less from Zen than that outcome – and if he assured that, he could make Zen’s professional life very difficult, knowing that Zen is the most tenacious detective makes Colonna’s job that much easier in vetting a detective to work for the Minister. With two such opposite expectations, Zen recognizes that he’ll need some support and so he enlists the help of Mosceti’s pretty secretary Tania (Caterina Murino) for information and a possible lead. Smarter than most people give him credit for, Zen sees through the cracks in the case and senses that there is more to meet the eye – especially when someone begins tailing him.
Going into this BBC series, I had a lot of expectations for it. It had previously enjoyed a lot of commendations and was popular among the viewing audience. Told in the style of the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy or the Julia Roberts helmed Duplicity makes this a very suave, sophisticated type of production. I am not saying that I didn’t enjoy this set of three hour-and-a-half long productions – quite the opposite in fact. I thought it was a really entertaining way to build suspense. Instead of being exciting, this mystery is much more methodical and slow-moving; it takes its time in plotting its story and in the reveal of it all. Some of the time, I didn’t care one way or another and other times I lost track of where the case was going or what the implications were suggesting. It didn’t help that the series was set in Italy and the actors’ accents were often heavy enough to be a distraction. In my opinion that is somewhat of a failing for the show.
However on the flip side, the acting was superb. Sewell played the role of Zen to perfection. He embodies the role wonderfully and manages a cool old-school kind of detective that even though the setting is modern-day Rome, feels more like a classic oldie style. I loved his quiet personality that somehow always earned him the last word – and that last line of dialogue in “Ratking” might not have been a line that will be quoted as TV trivia but it couldn’t have been more suited to the character of Zen or the series. Comprised of three “episodes” (“Vendetta,” “Cabal” and “Ratking”), this is a show that the BBC cancelled well ahead of its time – that is right, everyone, these three shows are all they wrote. It was just beginning to pick up in my estimation with the third tele-film – it was the strongest of the bunch, so it is especially annoying that BBC pulled the plug, as it were well before the show’s time.
Flawed as it may have been, this was one British sleuth show that should have been given more leeway. It felt like a new spin on old classics like an Agatha Christie story, perhaps. Although I sometimes think I don’t, I really enjoyed the mysterious unanswered bits of this series – the parts that make the viewer fill in the blanks rather than spell every single thing out. It offers an indefinite conclusion, true but also the ability for the viewer to be a “part” of the story; to solve the case right along with the crack investigator and that is always fun. It may have taken me longer than usual to immediately love this series but I do suspect with time, it will become one of my favorite mysteries – after all, I have a feeling that I’ll pick up a lot in a second viewing, making it come off as a whole new enigma.
(Be aware: there is an extra-marital affair with a scene of the couple lying in bed sharing kisses; implications reveal they also engage in a rendezvous on their boss’ desk at work. Some British slang is present including the term “shag” and some profanity. Violence is limited but there is an attempted suicide, a man is pushed off a bridge, another is beaten to death and yet another is shot. One girl was raped by her father and is now not right in the head.)