2.1 Be Right Back
First broadcast in late 2011, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror trilogy of suspense dramas – loosely connected by their satirical humour and concerns about current and future technology – were refreshingly sharp, concise and well-made.
Just over a year later, Black Mirror’s back, and once again provides a bleak reflection of modern life. What’s surprising about the opening episode Be Right Back, though, is how subtle and low-key it is. Where the first series opened with a porcine relations bang – a button-pushing hour of drama designed to get audiences talking – Be Right Back brings with it a sombre tone more akin to the final episode of the last season, The Entire History Of You – the closing chapter written not by Brooker, but by Jesse Armstrong.
Those expecting the dark humour of The National Anthem or the harsh jabs at televised singing contests in Fifteen Million Merits may be somewhat taken aback by the relatively naturalistic air of Be Right Back – this is Brooker working from a more muted palette, and perhaps even growing in confidence as he explores his themes with greater subtlety.
Once again, the underlying theme is about technology’s effects on relationships. Haley Atwell plays Martha, a commercial artist who’s blissfully in love with Ash (Domhnall Gleeson) – an affectionate boyfriend who’s easily distracted by the inviting glow of his mobile phone. The happy couple have just moved to a remote cottage which once belonged to Ash’s parents, and a sedate, bucolic future appears to beckon.
Instead, a tragic incident tears the couple apart, suddenly leaving Martha alone and depressed in an unfamiliar and lonely landscape. A concerned friend signs Martha up for an unspecified yet ominous-sounding online service, which can harvest Ash’s web activity to recreate a passable version of him inside a computer – in short, it’s like a Windows Live Messenger for the bereaved.
“It helped me,” Martha’s friend says. “You can speak to him. It’s not like those stupid spiritualist things. It’s in beta, but…”
If the above sounds like spoiler territory, fear not: this is merely the opening few minutes in a slowly-unfolding, melancholy and intimate drama. What follows isn’t full of sharp twists or gut-wrenching turns of fortune, but it is undoubtedly mesmerising.
Shorn of the heightened drama of the previous episodes, Be Right Back allows its performances to come to the fore, and Hayley Atwell is excellent here. The hub of almost every scene, she puts in one of the best performances in Black Mirror’s short history – it’s undoubtedly as good as Rory Kinnear’s desperate, sympathetic turn as the luckless prime minister in The National Anthem, which is really saying something. There’s a real spark, too, between Atwell and Gleeson in the few scenes they share together; their little in-jokes, shared love of cheesy 70s tunes and childhood memories are illustrated in brief moments that are subtly acted and carefully written.
There are hints of Philip K Dick’s Ubik or maybe John Carpenter’s Starman in Charlie Brooker’s story, but these are probably coincidental; Be Right Back is so effective because it examines several themes at once – the difference between intimate relationships and virtual ones via social media, and more universally, the gaping hole left after the death of a loved one.
Director Owen Harris, whose work includes Misfits, Skins and Holy Flying Circus, creates the perfect tone for Brooker’s story. The various hints of a linked-in future – huge digital easels, thumb-print identity for parcel deliveries – are threaded in subtly with the quiet coastal landscape. Like Mark Romanek’s criminally under-seen adaptation of Never Let Me Go, Be Right Back‘s cinematography and lighting are subtle and exquisitely judged.
It’s notable that, with each passing episode, Black Mirror has worked on a canvas of decreasing size – a London full of jeering voters in the first, a future of apathetic cyclists in the second, the crumbling relationship in the third, and so on.
By reducing his scope still further, Be Right Back merely intensifies its dramatic strength. A sci-fi parable about bereavement and digital ghosts, this opening episode is appropriately haunting.
Black Mirror season 2 episode 1 is due to air in February.
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