National Treasure: the British drama of the year?

Jack Thorne and Marc Munden’s compelling, accomplished National Treasure is a demanding but rewarding watch. Spoilers…

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Warning: contains major spoilers.

After the first episode of National Treasure aired, I read a piece suggesting it was heading for either a harmful or meaningless ending. The argument ran that if Robbie Coltrane’s character—a light entertainment star accused of a string of historical sexual assaults—turned out to be innocent, it would further the insidious narrative that women routinely lie about rape. If he was revealed to be guilty, then Channel 4 had just wasted four hours attempting to humanise a serial rapist when there were more deserving perspectives from which to tell the story.

The first point is unassailable, as is the thinking behind the second, if not its conclusion. Of course the victims in such cases should be the focus. Of course their silenced and discredited voices deserve to be heard above those of attackers whose own voices have benefitted long enough from the amplification (and their actions from the camouflage) of fame.

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In its careful and captivating portrait of Paul Finchley though, National Treasure refutes the assumption that spending four hours humanising a serial rapist is a waste of anybody’s time. On the contrary, it’s exactly what drama is for. 

Fiction exists to make sense of the world, rapists like Finchley included. However unpalatable it is to accept, people like him aren’t a different species from the rest of us. Calling them monsters and turning away may be the easiest path, but self-preservation aside, it gets us nowhere. Facing them head on (National Treasure literally trains its camera on Finchley’s face for uncomfortably long periods, encouraging us to search for signs of guilt or innocence), exploring how they square their crimes with themselves, and considering how the world makes allowances for them, goes some way towards clarifying the incomprehensible fug that cruelty of their kind exists.

Not a whodunit, the point with this story isn’t about placing bets on whether Finchley did it or not. It’s about the compromises of faith, the unreliability of memory and the discomfort of our certainties being hollowed out by corrosive doubt.

The mistake is to equate understanding with apology, empathy with sympathy. National Treasure is no apologist for Finchley or his attacks on women and girls. The final episode, in which a jury acquits him of all charges while we learn through flashback that he is conclusively guilty, indicts the painful unfairness of a system that shores up the guilty rich and leaves their victims publicly destroyed.

The guilty-not-guilty verdict is a final masterstroke from a drama that doesn’t put a foot wrong start to finish. It’s bleakly recognisable. It legitimises the victims’ stories in the audience’s eyes while critiquing the processes and attitudes that deny them justice. The sickening celebrities-and-champagne ending also draws a damning conclusion about fame and power (Finchley’s £400-an-hour legal team is his get-out-of-jail-free card) and, in a cunning parallel with its major themes of memory and doubt, encourages you to revisit the conclusions you previously drew in preceding episodes.

Dee’s account of her dream, for instance, in which her dad swore the family to secrecy about an act of violence he’d committed takes on added significance after his guilt is established. As does the scene of him panting, tickling and restraining his young daughter, and earlier, leaning over her on the edge of her bed. “He certainly never touched you” Marie swore to Dee, assuring them both “I’ve a good memory”. Memories fail. People lie to themselves. That’s National Treasure’s real subject.

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Those themes are fed into by director Marc Munden’s hyper-real stylised colours and Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s eerie score, all of which give you pause over what’s real, what’s fantasy and whose perspective we’re sharing. Paul chases an apparition of his younger self down the street… did he also hallucinate the prostitute appearing in the courtroom gallery? In an examination of the fallibility of memory, who’s to say the teenage Christina really propositioned Paul with such worldly assurance? Was she cockily testing her power over men, or did that play out differently to the version filtered through Paul’s predatory perspective? In his very first scene, in which he walks down a backstage corridor uncannily reminiscent of a prison, Paul jokes about his RADA training. How much of what we’ve just seen is an act?

Over the four episodes, the audience is alternately ushered between the two poles of guilt and innocence. (I felt sure he’d done it when he gave chase to his younger self, then sure he hadn’t when he told Dee the story about his own father’s abuse. Only as late as Marie telling him “I think you did it” would I have put money on his guilt.) The pendulum swing wasn’t done with the deliberately jarring cliff-hanger revelations of a murder mystery, but through a chain of terrifically written scenes that didn’t waste a word.

It was a feat of ambiguity, performed by actors that couldn’t be bettered. Robbie Coltrane as Paul, Julie Walters as his pragmatic, tough wife Marie, Andrea Riseborough as their spiky, irreparably damaged daughter Dee, Tim McInnerny as his laid-back comedy partner Carl… each feels irreplaceable. If this were a stage play—and in many ways it has the sense of one—you’d move mountains for tickets to this particular cast.

As strong as the performances are, they’d be nothing without the writing. National Treasure simply cements Jack Thorne’s reputation as one of the UK’s leading dramatists, in structure, dialogue and theme.

National Treasure is a rare creature at a time where it feels as though precious little room is afforded to complexity and nuance. It’s a drama that doesn’t seek to polemicise or convince, but to comprehend.

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Using fiction to understand the ways people like Finchley committed, lived with, and got away with their abhorrent acts doesn’t diminish their guilt or excuse their crimes. It only elevates us. Empathy always does.