Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Criminal Justice, BBC One

I watched and reviewed Criminal Justice last night for Orange, and thought it was excellent. Writing, direction and performances meshed together perfectly to produce absolutely top-quality drama.

The storytelling was stylish but brilliantly economical; the number of 'silent' scenes with just one person revealing themself through their actions reminded me a lot of Mad Men.

Even the first couple of minutes, showing Maxine Peake struggling with her cardigan and her seat belt, created a strong impression of a woman out of phase with the world. Meanwhile, the missed calls between the couple highlighted a lack of communication and the fact that their worlds didn't quite connect.

There were also a couple of classic set-ups and pay-offs, where a little bit of business that seemed to be there to illuminate character had greater significance later on. For instance, Jim's detailed notation of his runs seemed to just highlight his OCD tendencies, but then his similar attention to the mileage clock in the car provided more evidence of Juliet's apparent

I think the only bum note in the whole episode was the coincidence when the traumatised Juliet staggers into the hospital just as the critically injured Jim is being wheeled through. Other than that, it all added up beautifully. I'm really looking forward to the rest of the series.

EDIT: Another fantastic writing choice that just came back to me was the lead-up to Juliet stabbing Jim; instead of her arriving back upstairs with the Vaseline and then revealing the knife (DA-DA-DAA!!!), we see her notice the knives in the kitchen and can almost hear the idea forming in her brain.

She then deliberates about choosing the right knife, and slowly climbs the stairs with it in her hand, protracting the build-up and increasing the sense of dread and anticipation. Even after that, the stabbing is handled obliquely, with the audience just seeing its immediate aftermath through the eyes of their initially uncomprehending daughter. A great example of staging a familiar scene in a fresh and enthralling way.

The success of the first series of Criminal Justice, written by former barrister Peter Moffat, means that the second five-parter, showing each night this week, is a highly anticipated TV event. Thankfully, this haunting first episode was no disappointment.

Maxine Peake stars as Juliet Miller, the wife of successful barrister Joe Miller (Matthew MacFayden). But behind the affluent facade, she's clearly a woman with secrets and problems; she's not taking her anti-depressants, and she seems to be having an affair with the father of one of her daughter's friends. Twitchy, frantic and distracted, Peake gives a powerful but unsettling performance that manages to be compelling and difficult to watch at the same time.

Meanwhile, husband Joe seems to be a committed and conscientious barrister and a good father and husband. However, his suspicious mind and obsessive nature, combined with the attention to detail that makes him a formidable force in court, reveal Juliet's apparent duplicity. As the episode progresses, we find out he's got secrets of his own and he's not a very nice man after all.

When Juliet stabs Joe during what amounts to marital rape, she finds herself plunged into the criminal justice system – a cold world of bare cells and harsh, disconcerting noises that's powerfully evoked by atmospheric direction and editing. Clearly traumatised, her only ally seems to be Jack Woolf (Sophie Okonedo), the spiky solicitor who's allocated to her case.

Tricked by the unpleasant and devious DI Sexton (Steven Mackintosh), Juliet confesses to her crime in the belief that she'll be able to see her daughter if she does so. So, while Joe continues to fight for his life, it looks like an open-and-shut case – until the more thoughtful senior officer DCI Faber (Denis Lawson) has the last word and sets up the drama to follow: "Did anyone ask her why she did it?"

The first series won the 2009 BAFTA award for Best Drama Serial, and the opening part of the second series suggests it's going to be in contention for awards again. It might build slowly and lack car chases and shoot-outs, but this is sophisticated, compelling and thought-provoking stuff. If you missed tonight's episode, you can catch up on BBC iPlayer (in the UK).

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