Utopia episode 1 spoiler-free review

Review Louisa Mellor
8 Jan 2013 - 16:59

Channel 4's six-part graphic novel conspiracy drama gets off to a hugely promising start...

An episode of Spooks and superlative BBC Three comedy Pulling aside, you’re more likely to have encountered Dennis Kelly’s writing on the stage than on television. Prior to collaborating with Tim Minchin and the RSC on hit musical Matilda, Kelly wrote a series of plays combining humour and - though he hesitates to use the word - dark themes.

Tales of ordinary people in extremis (accidental death, infanticide, random violence, suicide, debt, torture, terrorist attacks) are Kelly’s thing; tense, dramatic stories that are both harrowing and funny.

It’s this combination of brutality, tension and comedy that Kelly draws together in original six-part Channel Four drama Utopia. Set in an alternative present where a food shortage is beginning to threaten the West and a shady conspiracy infiltrates the lives of previously unrelated people, Utopia’s title follows in the grand ironic tradition of Huxley’s Brave New World, and Swift’s A Modest Proposal. This is nobody’s vision of a perfect world.

Don’t be mistaken, we’re not talking gritty dystopian, grimy hover car sci-fi either. Utopia is recognisably set in reality - London to be precise - and revolves around real people, not superheroes. There’s a medical student drop-out, an IT worker, a conspiracy theorist, a senior civil servant and a scattering of others it would give too much away to mention at this stage. What unites the group is a shared interest in a cult graphic novel, the titular Utopia, a manuscript that some are literally willing to kill for.

The sixty-minute long first episode does exactly what it needs to by pithily introducing the characters, establishing the intrigue, and leaving us with a cliff-hanger that’ll have you coming back for more. Kelly’s agile script steers between moments of thriller-style tension, knockabout sex comedy and, towards the end, a violent scene so brutal I felt (rightly, I should say) nauseated watching it.

From the production company that made the BBC’s Spooks, Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes and most recently, spy thriller Hunted, Utopia is as good-looking and tautly constructed as you’d imagine. The characters’ disparate stories slot together with clockwork grace against a handsome backdrop of pale urban landscapes broken by flashes of garish cartoon colour.

Unlike Hunted, whose complicated plot and po-faced dialogue tested the patience of even the most forbearing viewer, Utopia feels as if its extraordinary action is happening to real people in the real world. That it balances stylised villainy, far-fetched conspiracy plots, and a thread of apocalyptic doom with light-hearted realism is down to Kelly’s deft touch, and the work of director Mark Munden.

The cast, it should be said, are very decent too, a well-balanced and capable group including Stephen Rea, Michael Smiley and Paul Higgins, though Alexandra Roach and Adeel Akhtar are the early stand-outs in episode one.

Munden combines the style of his period drama work (he was behind the camera for the very decent BBC adaptation of The Crimson Petal and the White, as well as mini-series Vanity Fair and The Devil’s Whore), with one or two modern tricks. Lines from an internet forum conversation appear on screen floating by the participants’ heads, a body falls in extreme slow-motion down the façade of a building... Where the direction really succeeds though is in the episode’s thriller moments, its fast-paced chases and a surprising, tense-but-simple scene near the end involving an injured man and a gun.

For purposes of comparison, it’s perhaps better to think of the heightened adult, parallel worlds of Black Mirror than rowdy fellow channel-mate Misfits. Though Kelly’s script has a sense of humour (there’s a geek-bait line about PhD funding, and a drinking session I almost spat out my tea laughing at), Utopia’s residual feeling is one of cynicism, paranoia and menace.

Starting on Channel Four at 10pm on Tuesday the 15th of January, fresh, entertaining Utopia is just what January needs. Come back for our spoiler-filled review after the credits roll.

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