Thursday 22 March 2018

Television... Couchsurfer: Witness Protection

Channel4's latest six-part crime thriller, Witnesses, is the first time in 20 years that a French series has been bought into the UK

Marie Dompnier in Witnesses
Marie Dompnier in Witnesses

Emily Hourican

The French do good thrillers - see Hidden by Michael Haneke, or Jacques Audiard's The Beat That My Heart Skipped in recent years. They also do good noir, so when they combine the two, as happened with crime series Les Temoins last year, the effects can be impressive.

This gritty six-part police procedural set in the North of France and starring Thierry Lhermitte (one of the great actors of his generation) and Marie Dompnier, is darker, more daring, than many crime series, and was a huge hit in France and at festivals across Europe; as a result, this is the first time in 20 years that a series produced for French television will air in the UK.

Channel 4 has acquired the series, translated it as Witnesses, and otherwise left it alone. Instead of remaking it - as was done with Swedish series Humans - Witnesses will be shown in all its original Gallic glory, subtitled into English. There are touches of The Killing and of Broadchurch to the story - same kind of passionate, even obsessive, slightly maverick female cop with domestic difficulties, same kind of slow, steady plotting. Except Witnesses, written by Herve Hadmar and Marc Herpoux, begins with the discovery not of bodies, but of a lack of bodies. Three people, a man, a woman and a teenager have been removed from their graves. They have, apparently, no connection with each other. Then they turn up in a show house, grotesquely posed in happy family mode. The echoes of a year-old case ring alarm bells, and the police go into overdrive.

Leading the investigation is young police officer Sandra Winckler (Marie Dompnier), who discovers a photograph close to one of the bodies, of an older colleague, retired since his wife died, and a long-time legend within the squad, Paul Maisonneuve (Thierry Lhermitte). This connection and the suggestion that something in his professional past is key to the bizarre crime, forces Maisonneuve out of retirement and back into action. Winckler, meanwhile, although initially slightly overawed, is convinced that he is hiding something, and determined to discover what he is holding back.

The series starts in a fairly traditional fashion, but it is the unexpected departures that have made it such a hit - it's being screened in Germany, Australia, Israel and Russia too - along with the concentration on psychological angles, and the excellent acting.

The Northern France setting means that this isn't a French Connection type thriller, with sparkling blue sea and yachting whites. In Witnesses, the landscape is as grey and bleak as the action - this of course is a primary requirement of the noir genre - as writer and director Herve Hadmar says, "the atmosphere is very important. The mystery is everywhere - on the fields, in the wind, in the sky, everywhere. So, for me, places like the North of France are full of this strange, dark romantic mood." The flat, featureless landscape, again reminiscent of The Killing, is significant; "you see the horizon line. That's very important, because the characters also lose themselves in the horizon line."

As for the appeal of Witnesses beyond France, Hadmar says, "A lot of great shows are made around the world today - the audience wants beautiful, edgy, thrilling shows with great images, great sound, great music and great storytelling." For Marie Dompnier (above), whose acting background until now has been mainly theatre, and who was encouraged to watch The Killing and also Homeland before shooting, Witnesses represents an opportunity to get the best of French cinema onto TV and in front of a wider world. If the reaction to this series so far is anything to go by, there is plenty of appetite.

Witnesses, Channel4, Wednesday, 10pm

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