Friday 26 April 2019

Television: Star turn by Irish actress lights up a week of varying dramas


Fable quality: Skelly and Dornan in Death and Nightingales
Fable quality: Skelly and Dornan in Death and Nightingales

John Boland

In this era of #MeToo, television drama has been focusing much of its attention on patriarchal attitudes, whether these take the form of malevolence or of blithe entitlement and whether the stories occur in our contemporary world or more than a century ago.

The latter is the case with Death and Nightingales (RTÉ1/BBC1), a three-part adaptation of Eugene McCabe's only novel, published in 1992 and set in the rural Fermanagh of 1885.

The book had something of the quality of a fable as young Beth sought to escape the clutches of her Protestant landowning stepfather William (who "kissed me, not fatherly") and went on the run with Liam, one of his young Catholic tenants and suspected locally of subversive inclinations.

Adapted and directed by Allan Cubitt, who created the much-talked-about The Fall, this once again stars Jamie Dornan, though here a much gentler presence than in that over-praised series - and also managing to banish thoughts of his role in the execrable Fifty Shades franchise.

But the real star here is 21-year-old Ann Skelly, formerly best known for her role in the soap opera Red Rock, who's luminously good as Beth. Such is the intensity of her gaze and the underlying passion she conveys that you can't take your eyes off her.

The bleak house from which she plans her bid from freedom is a star, too, summoning up thoughts of Jane Eyre in its cold and dark interiors, though the flashbacks in the first episode were distracting, clumsily interrupting the storyline before it had a chance to get going. But that's a small quibble about a series that has begun arrestingly.

Mrs Wilson (BBC1) took its time to get going, too, and I'm not sure if it will hold the viewer's attention over two more episodes. But already it's been telling an unusual story, with wife and mother Alison, who's mourning the sudden death of her husband, dumbfounded when a woman arrives at her door, announces "I'm Alec's wife" and demands his personal belongings.

Ruth Wilson, best-known as the adulterous wife in Showtime series The Affair, plays Alison, who was actually the actress's own grandmother in this true-life story of family secrets, betrayals and lies - the charming Alec having pretended, for the 20 years of their marriage, that he had divorced his first wife. Then, at the end of this week's episode, Alison learns of yet another wife who's still alive.

It's all very well done, with a great feeling for period in the suburban London of the 1960s, but I can't really envisage where it might go from here and I'm not interested enough to find out.

Still, it will probably be more intriguing than Netflix's new series, Fugitiva, whose first episode was quite bonkers in that excitable way of so many Spanish crime dramas.

This began with the kidnapping in Mexico city of a tycoon's wife and teenage children while hubby was doing business deals at a race meeting in Madrid. The children were terrified, but glamorous mum Magda remained calm and reassuring even when AK-47s were being aimed at their heads.

That was because she had arranged the kidnapping herself as a way removing her and the kids from the clutches of her abusively violent husband. I didn't believe in it for a second, but who am I to stop you binge-watching all nine episodes?

However, you'd be much better off with Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Netflix), which rethinks the 1990s children's sitcom, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, in more adult terms, with knowing references to gender and other issues and with a terrifically smart and engaging performance by Kiernan Shipka in the lead role. There's fine support, too, from Lucy Davis and Miranda Otto as her witch aunts.

And the three episodes I've seen of The Kominsky Method (Netflix) have been very engaging, too. Michael Douglas is one of those actors who've become more interesting as they've got older, and he clearly revels in the part of Sandy Kominsky, a faded Hollywood actor who now gives drama classes to a group of young hopefuls.

Alan Arkin is his irascible old agent friend Norman, and the badinage between them is as smart as you'd expect from Chuck Lorre, the creator of both Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory - the former very funny before it got rancid in later seasons, the latter too intent on being clever to be really funny.

But writing for these two veterans (Douglas is 74 and Arkin 84) has encouraged him to delve a bit deeper and there's as much talk here of aging and mortality as there is of fame, success and other worldly matters.

Nancy Travis, who's so good in the marvellous current season of Mr Mercedes (RTÉ2), is also very engaging here as Douglas's love interest, and the whole thing is a genuine delight.

Which is more that I can say about the first episode of Colin Murphy's Panic Room (BBC1), in which, for reasons that entirely escaped me, the Northern Irish comic fretted about nuclear warfare.

I don't know how he came to be so terrified by Dr Strangelove, which was released four years before he was born and which must have been pretty unobtainable in his native Downpatrick during his formative years, but this led to an interminable chat with a guy who owns an underground bunker and an equally endless trawl through a supermarket in search of food provisions for such a bunker. Did no one look at the script outline, if there was one, and ask: but what's it about?

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