Sunday 22 September 2019

Television: Child stars dazzle in absorbing coming-of-age Neapolitan saga


Commanding: Elisa Del Genio and Ludovica Nasti as Lenu and Lila in My Brilliant Friend
Commanding: Elisa Del Genio and Ludovica Nasti as Lenu and Lila in My Brilliant Friend

John Boland

The first episode of My Brilliant Friend (Sky Atlantic) offered convincing proof that you can enjoy the televising of a novel without knowing much, if anything, about where it came from.

Mind you, it's been hard to avoid ongoing media speculation about the real identity of the book's enigmatic pseudonymous author, Elena Ferrante, but all I knew about the bestselling and much-acclaimed novel itself was that it concerned the friendship of two young girls in the downtrodden Naples of the 1950s and that three succeeding novels have followed their lives into adulthood and beyond.

In this adaptation (with Ferrante credited as co-scriptwriter), we first meet Lenu in her sixties as she's being informed that her lifelong friend Lila has gone missing - and reacting coldly to the news. Then it's back to the Naples of 50 years earlier and the first meeting of the two schoolgirls in their often violent neighbourhood of tenement apartments.

This is all beautifully evoked by director Saverio Costanzo (the raucous classroom scenes are reminiscent of those in Fellini's Amarcord), though he was fortunate to have at his disposal two extraordinary child actors in Elisa del Genio as the gravely watchful Lenu and Ludovica Nasti as her fiery little genius friend Lila.

These two command every scene, and the camera pays due attention to their every reaction, though the warring adults around them are vividly realised, too, and there's a real sense of how children absorb and come to terms with the incomprehensible and often frightening idiocies of grown-up behaviour.

With seven episodes to go (and with the succeeding novels being adapted, too), this is an ambitious project that promises to explore social history and gender issues as well as the ongoing story of an intense if volatile friendship. If the opening instalment is anything to go by, it should be truly absorbing.

More absorbing, I hope, than Taken Down (RTÉ1), which, midway through its run, hasn't got any less sluggish or sententious. A recent episode of Beck (BBC4) managed to say a lot about the alienation of asylum seekers in Sweden without neglecting its basic crime story. Here, though, the plot seemed to have gone on walkabout while the makers felt obliged to remind you yet again of the dreadful lives that migrants have to endure in today's Ireland.

The introduction of Nigerian human traffickers added some impetus to the narrative, but too much time was spent contemplating the mournful reactions of Ibeni as she went about her cleaning duties in a downtown brothel populated by scumbags. Meanwhile, the cops continued to be as clueless as they were uninteresting.

In fact, there was a lot more tension to be had in The Interrogation of Tony Martin (Channel 4), even though many viewers would have been familiar with the circumstances and outcome of the 1999 incident in which a Norfolk farmer shot two intruders, one of them fatally.

In this verbatim reconstruction of the initial police interrogation, a chilling Steve Pemberton played Martin as the paranoid loner that he was, displaying no remorse or even regret about his lethal action and so solipsistic in his self-righteousness as to be repellent.

And the fact that he wasn't the ideal poster boy for advocates of the right to defend oneself was confirmed at the end when the real Tony Martin was interviewed outside his former farm and, despite his time in prison, was just as unrepentant as ever. In fact, he'd do it again, he said.

In A Great British Injustice (BBC1), Stephen Nolan interviewed Annie Maguire and two of her sons about what befell them when they and other members of their family were wrongfully accused of having a role in the 1974 IRA bombings at Guildford and Woolwich. Patrick, who's now 56 but was only 13 when he was arrested, sentenced and incarcerated, is still traumatised today and the viewer watched in distress as he recalled what he had experienced, including the beatings from corrupt and lying police officers.

The family's solicitor, Alastair Logan, was a striking interviewee, too, as he outlined the dreadful circumstances of this case, which all began when Gerry Conlon and Paul Hill of the Guildford Four, who were under their own police duress, were wrongly implicated in the bombings. All of these convictions were later quashed, though too late for the suffering and trauma to be undone.

I wrote two weeks ago about Tastes Like Home (RTÉ1), in which Catherine Fulvio travelled from Cabinteely to New Zealand so that an emigrant son could enjoy his mammy's curry dish. Who was paying for this, I asked, and why?

On this week's Tastes Like Home, Catherine flew to Sydney so emigrant daughter Sarah could savour her mum's vegetable soup. Has the world gone bonkers?

In Mr Mercedes (RTÉ2), psycho killer Brady was always bonkers, but now he's even more so - lying comatose and supposedly brain-dead in his hospital bed but still able to get others to do his murderous bidding.

This lurch into the telepathic may not please everyone, but I'm finding it persuasively unsettling, and I continue to marvel at the playing of Harry Treadaway as Brady and Brendan Gleeson as Bill, who just knows that there's something really creepy going on.

And I'm marvelling, too, at Florence Pugh, who remains the best reason for continuing with The Little Drummer Girl (BBC2). She's a splendidly sparky presence in a series whose basic premise is inherently shaky. Alexander Skarsgård and Michael Shannon are very good, too, but this is Florence's show.

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