Tuesday 16 January 2018

Television: It's a case of Stiles over substance for Sky's new Côte d'Azur drama

Cashing in: Julia Stiles plays American art dealer Georgina in the stylish but disappointing Neil Jordan-directed first episode of Riviera
Cashing in: Julia Stiles plays American art dealer Georgina in the stylish but disappointing Neil Jordan-directed first episode of Riviera

John Boland

There's a good deal of Irish involvement in Sky Atlantic's new thriller series, Riviera, which can be binge-watched by anyone who so desires. Former U2 manager Paul McGuinness came up with the basic idea, Neil Jordan and John Banville co-wrote some of the script, and Jordan directed the pilot episode.

McGuinness, who, along with members of U2, has a home in the south of France, was probably mindful of Somerset Maugham's description of the Riviera as "a sunny place for shady people", while Jordan had already visited the same sun-drenched locale in The Good Thief (2002), which was a reworking of Jean-Pierre Melville's marvellous 1955 movie Bob Le Flambeur.

Jordan's movie, with a mumbling Nick Nolte at its centre, wasn't that marvellous, and from the two episodes I've watched, Riviera isn't, either - so smitten by the opulence on display (those frightful rich, and why can't I have some of it?) that it neglects to get on with the storyline, which anyway is too generic and lacking in quirks for its own good.

Julia Styles, who has been constantly wasted in movies since her 1999 star turn in Ten Things I Hate About You (think of her sketchily drawn presence in the Bourne franchise), plays American art dealer Georgina, whose billionaire new husband Constantine (Anthony LaPaglia) is apparently killed in a yacht explosion, but the script gives her nothing to do except look mystified and fretful as she attempts to discover the truth.

Meanwhile she has to contend with Constantine's other family, all of them coming straight from central casting (the untrustworthy first wife, the dodgy eldest son, the self-harming daughter) and with art-dealer chum Robert (Adrian Lester), who may not be as affably innocent as he seems.

And what about Constantine? Was he really blown up in the explosion or is he lurking somewhere trying to evade shadowy business rivals? Binge-watchers will probably already know the answer, but I found the first two episodes so formulaic and uninvolving that I couldn't be bothered finding out. Still, it's less implausible than Paula (RTÉ1/BBC2), where Conor McPherson's script lost the plot entirely, culminating in twists that defied belief. Indeed, in its final episode you had the sense that it was being made up as it went along, with characters behaving in ways that made absolutely no sense.

The final entombment scene came straight from the ending of George Sluizer's The Vanishing (1988), but in that unsettling Dutch movie it was terrifying, whereas here it bore no relationship to anything we'd been given to understand about the main character and just seemed daft. Clearly, McPherson has still a bit to learn about the basic rules of television drama.

The first episode of The Loch (ITV/TV3) respected those rules, though it has yet to show whether it can rise above its run-of-the-mill serial-killer storyline. Its Loch Ness landscapes certainly look more beguiling than the bleak Welsh terrain of BBC4's Hinterland, though so far it's less distinctive, too.

Still, it has the formidable presence of Siobhan Finneran (so touchingly good as Catherine's sister in Happy Valley) as the acerbic Glasgow cop drafted in to oversee the murder mystery, and she has good support from John Sessions as the irascible local sergeant and from Laura Fraser as the young policewoman faced with her first murder assignment, so it might be worth a further look.

Meanwhile, I gave a second look to the Canadian serial-killer drama Cardinal (BBC4), which turned very nasty indeed, with prolonged scenes of torture as a young psychopathic couple inflicted terror and violent pain on their victim.

Not nice at all, and nor was the third instalment of The Handmaid's Tale (Channel 4), with its scenes of hanging and female genital mutilation. But the series is so adept at atmosphere, tone and pacing that you can't stop yourself from watching, even when you don't want to.

For light relief, there's the third season of Poldark (BBC1), though there's not much lightness in the dour and grumpy Ross (Aidan Turner), the beastly George and the mopey Elizabeth, pregnant after Ross's assault on her at the end of the last season.

But the landscapes continue to look ravishing, while the addition of fanciable governess Morwenna and dashing young Drake should keep devotees interested. For myself, I'm not pushed.

Goodbye House (RTÉ1), which had the look of a pilot for a series that might or might not get made, was a silly film and a boring one, too, not to mention yet another property show under a different name.

Widow Rosemary from Virginia in Co Cavan was seeking to downsize, and so three of her adult children competed to find her an ideal home nearby. To this end, they sat in Rosemary's kitchen watching video footage of their house-seeking efforts while engaging in laboured badinage and mock sibling rivalry for the benefit of the camera. Watching paint dry would have been far more thrilling than enduring an hour in which we never learned what any of the three siblings did for a living (though one spent some time "in the pulpit") and wondered at the absence of the fourth sibling, who was never mentioned. Maybe she'd seen the advance outline.

Jo Cox: Death of an MP (BBC2), screened three nights before the anniversary of her killing, was an arresting documentary that chronicled the timeline leading up to her murder, including extensive CCTV footage of loner Thomas Mair as he set out on his lethal mission.

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