I don’t really know why, but the UK doesn’t produce much in the way of great contemporary drama these days. Most of the successful programmes these days are period dramas or entertainment like Sherlock. This sort of fare is sometimes watchable, but too often infused with a kind of fake ‘Britishness’ that seems to me to propagate an ideological notion of some kind of national essentialism, which incidentally helps sell it to overseas markets, particularly North America.
The Fall is an exception to the rule of bad British TV. For one, it’s reminiscent of older, serious British crime dramas as well as top-quality American shows like The Wire or True Detective. While not quite on that level, it’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking story, certainly a rarity in Britain these days. It’s actually an Anglo-Irish collaboration, produced by BBC Northern Ireland and filmed and set in Belfast. The Belfast setting is intriguing for a number of reasons. First, Northern Ireland and its, shall we say, complicated politics rarely figure on television in England outside of news and documentaries about The Troubles. Northern Ireland is, of course, part of the same country as England–the UK–and its incorporation into that state remains a basic tenet of British domestic and foreign policy; of policing and military policy; and, as we saw in last year’s Scottish independence referendum, the Union remains a touchstone of the British elite’s sense of its place in the world. The Conservative Party’s official name is the Conservative and Unionist Party! But for most ordinary people, Northern Ireland is a world away culturally, socially and politically. For this reason, to see a ‘normal’ programme set in Northern Ireland (albeit one about a serial killer) is interesting and significant.
Belfast is also an interesting setting for a story like this because of its size: it’s much, much smaller than somewhere like London, so the sense of anonymity and danger is quite different. If, as here, the killer is targeting people who look a certain way and are from a certain background, in London there might be half a million people who fit that description; in Belfast there might be only a couple of thousand. Similarly, it’s more difficult for a serial killer to hide and blend in. This is made particularly apparent in a scene where the killer is stalking a victim who lives near the Shankill Road, a notorious Loyalist area in Belfast. Because locals there are always on the look-out for outsiders, he’s quickly spotted, and this causes all sorts of problems later on for his personal and professional life.
The killer is well played by Jamie Dornan, who is also known for having played Mr Grey in the ’50 shades’ film the other year. Dornan is very attractive but in the sort of way that lends itself to playing these creepy characters. While the maniac he plays here is quite compelling, and certainly terrifying, I felt there was something missing. At times he breaks into recitations of Nietzsche, but between these moments and his crimes you see no evidence of this aspect of his motivation and self-justification, just lots of scenes of him staring intently at computer monitors. I suppose we’ve been spoiled by the first season of True Detective, and now expect existential philosophy and H.P. Lovecraft to be finely woven into every tale of bloodshed and murder. But nevertheless, that’s where the bar sits these days.
Gillian Anderson is absolutely stunning (in every sense) as Detective Stella Gibson. The magnetism of her performance certainly brings the show to another level. Since the X-Files I’ve always thought of Anderson as an American actress, but it turns out she grew up in north London–near where I live now! It helps explain how she is able to do the clipped English accent so well, and indeed she’s done other English roles very well in the past–particularly Lady Dedlock in Bleak House. I’m very pleased to see Anderson doing gangbusters work like this and looking forward to seeing her reprise the role in seasons two and three.
The Fall’s first season is only five episodes, but at an hour each they do pack a lot in and it feels like a full-length series. The ending left us hanging and I’m not sure how the story will sustain itself over another two seasons, but prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt for now. I can’t remember the last time I cared about a British drama, so kudos for doing it right for once.