This review contains spoilers.
The riches of its cast aside, where Broadchurch leans away from the majority of mainstream detective drama is its interest in life after death. I don’t mean in the literal, chatting-with-the-deceased supernatural crime show sense (despite Will Mellor’s appearance this week as a psychic telephone engineer), but in the script’s desire to realistically inhabit the skin of a community after a loss.
In most cases, the pay-off for spending two hours in the company of a brooding TV detective and a strangled child is a money shot of the cuffed perp being jostled towards custody, usually at night, usually in the driving rain, usually accompanied by spinning blue lights and overwritten dialogue.
Not in Broadchurch. Two hours in, and there’s been nary a blue light, night shoot, or an exchange that hasn’t illuminated the inarticulate grief or insensitive self-interest that come from people affected to differing degrees by a local death.
Though the murder mystery, fed by tributary unknowns (What is DI Hardy’s past trauma? Who is the little girl he keeps a photograph of in his wallet? Who gave Danny £500 in cash before he died?), is the central vein of the drama, solving the case isn’t Broadchurch’s only goal. Staging the warts-and-all human reaction to the village’s anomalous crime has so far been given as much focus as the investigation.
The sound design of Beth’s supermarket trip for instance, demonstrated how distancing grief can be by creating the impression that not only was she marked out from the crowd by tragedy, but miles away from normality, underwater perhaps, or in the atmosphere of a different planet.
Broadchurch’s language too, or rather its inadequacy when the worst happens, rang familiarly true. Episode two saw the village inhabitants resort to a recognisable litany of stock comforts the day after Danny’s body was found. “Are you all right?”, “We’re all so sorry”, “Hope you and your family find some peace”, and the steadfastly British, “Can I make anyone a cup of tea?” were all trotted out as the programme’s characters attempted to say something, anything in response to Danny’s death.
The script’s simple honesty continued, as DI Miller shared a revealing exchange with Beth Latimer, whose peeled-skin sensitivity had toughened to inflexible survival mode on day two of the investigation. After being handed a list of potential suspects by Danny’s mother, Miller responded “But these are all your friends”, her objection met only with a stony “We know.” In extremis, suspicion and mistrust had replaced friendship, and in the words of Miller, it was heart-breaking.
Another phrase was repeated throughout the hour by the townspeople who loomed in and out of Hardy and Miller’s suspects’ parade, a disbelieving “You don’t think I had anything to do with it?” By the time the finale airs, someone who’s uttered those words will have been proved a liar, and if the next six episodes are as honest and human as the first two, we’ll feel it all the more sharply when that happens.
I’ve avoided the obvious so far, which is that episode two left us with a finger pointed squarely at local plumber and father-of-the-deceased, Mark Latimer. Without an alibi, proved to be near the crime scene at the time of Danny’s death, and the owner of some incriminating fingerprints, the case looked open and shut for Mark, except that only two episodes in, would Broadchurch really have delivered up its killer so prematurely? Almost certainly not, and what’s more besides, it goes against DI Miller’s instincts.
Olivia Colman as DI Miller is still the beating heart of Broadchurch, and her double act with Tennant’s Hardy remains a chief attraction (well, that, and Tennant’s magnificent Taggart-like delivery of the word “murdah” and ability to maintain a sense of aloof superiority even when flanked by a row of beige static caravans). It’s a cliché to write, but Colman, with compassion and fight humming out of every pore, makes this whole acting lark seem effortless.
The press-are-baddies theme continued this week as Vicky McClure’s Karen talked gullible wannabe Olly into making a devil’s bargain on a cliff-top bench. Like most of Broadchurch’s players, Karen’s characterisation isn’t nuanced, but efficiently enough drawn to let her take part in the chess game ensemble from the off. Falsely selling herself to Chloe Latimer as a friendly ear when her job is really to pour poison into others’, Karen is Broadchurch’s second unwelcome out-of-towner.
Speaking of nuance or lack thereof, this week’s plot developments – Beth’s “complicated” pregnancy, Hardy’s funny turns, the aforementioned psychic – were anything but, nor was the grandmother’s rhetorically eloquent speech to the local vicar (“Our challenge is your challenge, help us” felt like something you’d read in an electioneering pamphlet rather than hear from the mouth of a recently bereaved family member). For every moment that was too on the nose though, a spark of truth or honesty elsewhere made up for it. Hear Miller call Hardy out on his “broody bullshit shtick” and see if you don’t agree.
Where were we left then? With the heartbeat thrum of Broadchurch’s pulsing score sped up, as it does when we’re onto something, and with DI Hardy poised to take in his first bona fide suspect. An isolated hut had been pinned as the murder scene, Pauline Quirke’s dog-walking loner was in possession of Danny’s skateboard, and we’d seen our first flashback to a time before Danny’s death, courtesy of David Bradley’s newsagent.
With six more hours of finely tuned, well-acted drama still to go, who knows where Broadchurch will take us over the coming weeks. The only thing I can say with any confidence is that wherever it is, we’ll have arrived there with insight and finesse.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, here.
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