Southcliffe DVD review
Believe the headlines, 4-part C4 drama Southcliffe is every bit as harrowing as you’ve heard…
According to the DVD blurb, four-part C4 drama Southcliffe explores themes of tragedy and grief. A more apt verb may have been ‘wallows in’. What Tony Grisoni’s spree-killing drama tells us about tragedy and grief other than how hollowing they are to experience and how dreadful to observe, I don’t know. From start to finish, it's a zoo for human pain, and an utterly draining experience.
Part of the problem is that the cast and writing is too good. A lesser lot might have fudged it, allowing us a gulp of fresh air via an unconvincing performance as a grieving family member or Stephen Morton, the man who shot dead fifteen of his neighbours and then himself in the fictional small town of Southcliffe. Not so. Sean Harris is horribly believable as Stephen, a humiliated, isolated husk of a man whose fuse tripped. Anatol Yusef is similarly strong as guilt-ridden adulterer Paul, and as for Eddie Marsan and Shirley Henderson as the loving parents of a murdered daughter… I had to look away. It was simply too much to bear.
Why were we being asked to bear it? What justification did Grisoni and director Sean Durkin have to pass us this parcel of densely packed misery? After spending four hours in Southcliffe, I’m none the wiser. The drama flooded its audience with pain and left us wretched. Its press release may refer to human survival “in the face of ultimate darkness”, but we saw more people pulled under by their grief than surviving it.
As if the spree killing wasn’t horror enough, each character’s pain was compounded by individual trauma. Soldier Chris had returned from Afghanistan in time for his young army friend to die of his war injuries. Pub landlord Paul, whose wife knew about his affair, had buried his father the day before he lost his family. Doting parents-of-one Claire and Andrew were suffering through a course of IVF. Add to that the broken marriage and traumatised childhood of Rory Kinnear’s journalist and Stephen having to care for his infirm mother, and there wasn’t a glimmer of hope in the place.
From the TV listings summary to the ‘most harrowing drama ever’ headlines, we knew we weren’t in for a lark, but Southcliffe’s insistence on misery was pathological, misanthropic even. What human truth was laid bare by the series? It didn’t explore grief, it just did a precise job at mimicking it, chopping up its structure to mirror its time-shattering effects. Tragedy wasn’t probed, but spun around in the centre of the drama like a mirror ball, casting shimmers of suffering on every surface.
Sean Durkin’s measured direction was more proof of the immense talent that went into making Southcliffe quite so awful a viewing experience. His camera wrung emptiness from the setting’s already-bleak November landscapes. Its tendency to stare boss-eyed at walls and doorways rather than characters gave the impression of awkwardness and direct eye-contact being avoided. That diffidence disguised the didacticism at the heart of Southcliffe, which mumbled its complaint about collective responsibility and people not seeing the signs rather than owning up to having anything so unfashionable as a message.
While Southcliffe’s execution - like that of a well-engineered bridge or clock - is easy to admire, its value is less clear. Perhaps witnessing suffering at those levels is medicinal and cathartic, a cleansing grief enema. Perhaps not. Either way, it’s not an experience I’m in any rush to repeat.
Southcliffe is available to buy on DVD from Monday the 26th of August. Watch the trailer below, and read our interview with director Sean Durkin, here.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.