Tuesday 15 October 2019

TV Review: Chain-smoking Byrne lights up dark drama set in 1950s Dublin

Quirke of fate: Gabriel Byrne as Benjamin Black’s pathologist
Quirke of fate: Gabriel Byrne as Benjamin Black’s pathologist

John Boland

Quirke (RTÉ1), the first of three feature-length films adapted from Benjamin Black's crime novels, was much stronger on atmosphere than on plotting, the mechanics of which were somewhat creaky throughout and were clumsily resolved at the conclusion.

But if it was the dank alleys, murky bars and incessant fag-consumption of 1950s Dublin that you wanted, this adaptation of Black's first novel, Christine Falls, was your only man. Indeed, Gabriel Byrne deserves an award, though probably not from the HSE, just for the heroic smoking that was required of him in the role of deeply troubled pathologist Quirke. Talk about puffing for Ireland.

You could almost smell this Dublin, for which I give credit, not to adapter Andrew Davies or director John Alexander, but to cinematographer Tony Miller, whose images of murky city streetscapes and dimly lit interiors were so evocative of place and time as to be moodily poetic.

The acting, though, was curiously uneven. Byrne, looking suitably haggard and haunted, was outstanding in his portrait of a man driven both by his own demons and by his determination to learn the truth about a young woman who'd ended up on his coroner's table; and Nick Dunning was persuasively slimy as his well-to-do stepbrother. But Michael Gambon, as his mentor and stepfather, seemed to be playing in a different film altogether, one more suited to an old Abbey stage than to a movie. And Geraldine Somerville, who has been so good in so many roles, was quite wasted in a part that required her to uneasily adopt an American accent while giving her nothing interesting to do or say.

And it was when the action moved to America that the film lost a good deal of its grip, the change of locale accompanied by an increasing reliance on plot turns that seemed both clumsy and contrived.

That was a flaw in the book, too (to which the film was quite faithful), as if the heart of John Banville's alter ego wasn't really in it when it came to the conventions of thriller writing.

However, when stripped of Banville/Black's way with words, the melodramatic twists seemed artificial in their flurry of revelations. Yet the mood of the Dublin scenes remains, returning me to the shabby, furtive city of Anthony Cronin's Dead as Doornails and James Plunkett's short stories and encouraging me to watch the next two adaptations in this series.

In the original BBC production of House of Cards, it took the villainous Francis Urquhart less than four episodes to throw inconvenient young journalist Mattie off a roof. In the Netflix remake (spoiler alert here), it's taken the even more villainous Francis Underwood 14 episodes to murderously dispatch troublesome young Zoe – in this case, by throwing her under a Washington subway train.

So ended the first instalment of the new season and while the abrupt killing of a major character seems to have shocked commentators who plainly never saw the original, others may have wondered why it took Underwood so long.

The answer is that, unlike the BBC series, Netflix has been spinning out its storyline to meet the programming requirements of contemporary TV dramas, in which multiple seasons of 13 episodes each are the norm – even if Netflix's innovation is that viewers, rather than have to wait for a week to find out what happens next, can gorge on all 13 episodes at one sitting if they so desire.

In truth, Netflix is pushing it a bit with House of Cards – we've long got the message that Underwood is a monster, that his wife is just as bad, and that both of them are capable of anything when it comes to achieving their own nefarious ends. Yet I'm hooked all over again, not least by the mesmeric playing of Kevin Spacey, who waits until the very end of this season's first episode to turn to the camera and assure us that he hasn't forgotten us. I'm not so hooked, though, that I want to devour the whole season all at once.

Moone Boy (Sky 1), Chris O'Dowd's affectionately quirky homage to the Boyle of his childhood, has also returned for a second season and this week's opening episode was as amusingly droll as anything in the last series.

It was 1990 and World Cup fever had infected the town, with Martin's mum ardently declaring of Tony Cascarino "I could jump on that barely Irish bastard like a big sexy bouncy castle" and with dad trying to point out that it was merely "a bunch of English lads kicking a ball around in Irish jerseys".

Meanwhile, Martin was cheering Ireland's "one-one against the mighty Dutch", while his invisible alter ego exulted in yet "another triumphant draw". Then they all went off on holidays in Donegal, where a road sign announced: "Welcome to the Gaeltacht: No English for 74 Miles."

Deirdre O'Kane and Peter McDonald give super turns as the parents, David Rawle is the cherishably sceptical young hero and there's terrific stuff from the three sisters, too. And while some of the gags could do with a bit more zing, the overall mood is so likeable that only a curmudgeon would complain.

 

A friend in need . . . is just a needy friend

The 30-minute sitcom Doll & Em (Sky Living) is the brainchild of actress friends Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer (left) and it posits the notion of Em, a minor Hollywood star, helping Doll, her old pal from London days, to recover from a bad relationship by employing her as her personal assistant.

The opening episode, while not as funny as it should have been, was very good on the fragile dynamics of friendship and on the tensions that can surface when one friend is less successful and more needy than the other – though there were intriguing hints that the career-fixated Em might turn out to be even more needy and that roles might get reversed.

And the suggestion both were playing heightened versions of their real selves added to the intrigue.

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