Sunday 15 December 2019

Television review: So far crime hasn't really paid in BBC's ambitious global thriller

More like a travelogue: Juliet Rylance and James Norton in BBC1 thriller McMafia
More like a travelogue: Juliet Rylance and James Norton in BBC1 thriller McMafia

John Boland

Seventeen minutes into the second episode of McMafia (BBC1) and the viewer had already been taken to Cairo, London, Mumbai, the Cayman Islands, Dubai, Prague and the Sinai desert. Was this a crime drama or a demented travelogue?

Or, indeed, a blatant steal from the Godfather movies, with upright young Londoner Alex getting sucked into the lethal underworld of his expatriate Russian family, just as Michael Corleone did with his Italian clan in those 1970s masterpieces.

But lead actor James Norton is no Al Pacino and, on the evidence of the opening episodes, this dramatisation of Misha Glenny's 2008 book about global crime will turn out to be no masterpiece - already I'm being reminded of 2016's The Night Manager, where shimmeringly-filmed exotic locales never compensated for implausible plot strands and hollow characters.

In terms of the latter, Norton is the main problem here. Genuinely creepy as psychopath Tommy Lee in Happy Valley and quite charming as Prince Andrei in War and Peace, he was so muted - indeed listless - as Alex that you wondered how he's being touted as Daniel Craig's successor in future Bond movies.

Perhaps when the action really gets going (and it's taking a long time) he'll find his mojo, but in the first two episodes he was effortlessly outclassed by other players, especially David Strathairn as Israel-based businessman Kleiman, behind whose affably mild diffidence there clearly lurks a monster.

So far there've been a couple of scary set pieces, especially of a young woman abducted in Cairo for human trafficking, and it's to be hoped there'll be more in the next six episodes. Now if only we could care about any of the people involved...

We've always cared about the characters in the French crime series Spiral, despite the fact that this police team coping with crime in the banlieues and backstreets of Paris have always been a grubby and sometimes downright venal lot.

Now they're back for a sixth season on BBC4, and it's a pleasure to renew our acquaintance with them - especially compulsively driven team leader Laure (the superb Caroline Proust), thuggishly loyal sidekick Gilou (Thierry Godard) and shifty lawyer Josephine (Audrey Fleurot).

This time round the cops are saddled with a weaselly new boss who doesn't want them investigating a headless torso in case it goes nowhere and damages his career prospects. Meanwhile, lawyer Josephine has been getting in over her head in another murder case.

The pleasures of this series are many: intriguing plotlines; characters in whom we believe; a brilliantly evoked and unfamiliar Paris; and a glimpse into the intricacies and compromises of a French judicial system.

There's talk about this being the last season of Spiral, so relish it over the next few weeks.

Some of you will already have relished the fourth season of the Charlie Brooker creation, Black Mirror (Netflix), though so far I've only seen 'USS Callister', the first of its six episodes. However, a consensus of international critics has declared it to be easily the best of the bunch, which makes me wonder what the rest are like.

Mind you, it was intriguing, with Jesse Plemons (Kirsten Dunst's hapless hubby in the second season of Fargo) as a video games inventor who gets revenge on his scornful co-workers by digitally cloning them and imprisoning them in a Star Trek-like spaceship of which he was the supreme commander.

Inventively played out, and at times quite sinister, it was also far too long for its own good and didn't really repay logical scrutiny.

Screened over three nights, Little Women (BBC1) was a straightforward and commendably slush-free adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's famous novel for girls, with good turns from the 92-year-old Angela Lansbury as stern Aunt March and Emily Watson as Marmee.

Maya Thurman-Hawke (daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke) was very winning in the central role of Jo, though not as loveable as Winona Ryder in the 1994 movie.

You mightn't describe Shane MacGowan as loveable, but he's a songwriting treasure and Fairytale of New York: The Story of a Christmas Classic (RTÉ1) set both the song and its creator in satisfying context.

In fact, this documentary, produced and directed by David Whelan, was one of the best of the last 12 months, with absorbing insights from MacGowan's sister Siobhan, from Pogues colleague Jem Finer and from such luminaries as Paul Simon, Rosanne Cash, Christy Moore, Billy Bragg, Bob Geldof and Imelda May.

Kirsty MacColl's son Louis added some real poignancy when recalling his mother, who died in a terrible boating accident in Mexico in 2000. Only recently has he been able to listen with pleasure to her wonderful vocals on MacGowan's great song.

U2 at the BBC (BBC1) got the four band members into the Abbey Road studios, where they sang some of their numbers with a choir and orchestra to a small invited audience. Unfortunately it also got Cat Deeley to interview them and she duly gushed all over them.

I much preferred Saturday Night Fever: The Ultimate Disco Movie (BBC4), which was made to celebrate the film's 40th anniversary. John Travolta fondly recalled the movie's ­making, which was also the making of his fame, and there were good contributions from others, too.

Beating off four other contestants, David Norris's splendid North Great George's Street house won Celebrity Home of the Year (RTÉ1), but it was like pitting Frank Sinatra against the four members of Westlife: a no-brainer.

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