Saturday 18 November 2017

TV Review: Prisoners of War, Sky Arts 1

Tom Sutcliffe

Anyone watching Prisoners of War because of Homeland, the Showtime series that was notionally based on it, may need to adjust their clocks for a shift in dramatic time zones. In keeping with convention and Hollywood imperatives, the latter began with frantic action.

By contrast, Gideon Raff's Israeli original opts for frantic inaction. There is no dialogue and not much light. A group of people sit in a hotel room waiting for news. A paper is signed and passed out through a guarded door. Then there's another long pause. "What now?" someone asks anxiously. "We wait," replies a colleague. The camera closes in on the thin strip of light at the bottom of the door, as if something there might break the suspense, and eventually you see the shadow of someone outside. The deal has been done and two captive prisoners and one body are on their way home after 17 years.

"We wait" is good advice for anyone watching, because Raff's drama is in no hurry to set its hooks. And what might be a vice by the standards of American primetime television (sometimes all hooks and no line) is definitely a virtue here. So far, at least, Prisoners of War is far less interested in the mechanisms of a thriller plot than the mysteries of human feeling. Such hints of concealed mystery as there have been are subtle. "Do you remember everything we talked about?... May Allah keep you safe," says one of the prisoner's captors as he releases him, hinting at some unspecified compact. But mostly what Raff is concerned with is the wrenching adjustment of those returning and those waiting to greet them. How do you face a husband who remembers you as 17 years younger? And how do you face a partner you've betrayed for his own brother?

That last crux involves an implausibility that may be too large for some to swallow. Nurit, who found that she couldn't keep her promise of fidelity to Uri with no idea when it might be redeemed, is persuaded by the military psychologist to pretend that nothing has happened when he returns. Her husband and child move out, she takes the ring off her finger and – for a couple of days at least – sets out to play the faithful lover. But is such a deception remotely conceivable, even if her marriage hadn't already been the stuff of newspaper headlines? What psychologist would advise adding a second betrayal to the first? What conversation would explain to a son why his mother was suddenly spending the night with a stranger? It's a gaping hole in the drama's bid for emotional realism.

If you can ignore it though, Raff's script is also alert to the ways in which real life might divert from the tabloid clichés of returning heroes and blissful reunions. "How long do you think it will take him to figure out we're completely screwed up?" one prisoner's stroppy daughter asks her brother. The men themselves, meanwhile, swing between happy relief and profound shock. They've come back to a country they don't recognise and they're facing the prospect of a military debriefing that doesn't look as if it will be entirely benign. What's more, Uri already knows the secret everyone is trying so hard to hide from him, his captors having tormented him with the newspaper coverage of the story.

Viewers of Homeland may find that revelation familiar, as well as a later moment when a wife wakes to discover her husband curled up on the bedroom floor, because he can no longer sleep on a mattress. But that aside, there isn't a great deal to connect the two series. Homeland was a firework display that depended on a chain of startling explosions and shocking twists. In Prisoners of War, all the power lies in the dark, empty spaces in between, as people wait in the dark, not quite knowing what's going to happen next.

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