This review contains spoilers.
The BBC has much to boast about when it comes to new three part drama Exile. For starters, it’s not a remake, adaptation, or import, and – perhaps most importantly of all – nobody wears a bonnet. These things alone should be enough to silence habitual critics of Auntie’s drama scheduling, before we even get to the fact that Exile is very good indeed.
Episode one starts with a crisis, ends with a mystery, and does a lot of great things in between. Introducing itself as the story of a troubled family, Exile spirals out over the next two instalments into something, to borrow the words of its writer Danny Brocklehurst (Shameless, Clocking Off), much more ‘thriller-y’. If it can maintain its balance between the personal (established in this episode), and the political (still to come), then Exile promises to be a real treat.
The story then. Prodigal son Tom (John Simm) returns to his Lancashire family home after an absence of two decades which, judging by the coke residue left all over his flat and the flashness of his car, he’s spent living a hedonistic London life as a successful hack. Tom’s rain-soaked pilgrimage up north comes after he is fired from his associate editor position at a Loaded-style magazine, where, by his own admission, he had drifted away from real journalism and towards malicious, hatchet-job sensationalism.
Far from being greeted with a fatted calf, Tom is barely recognised by his father (Jim Broadbent) upon his return. Formerly a local news writer who prided himself on ‘shaming the devil’, Tom’s father Samuel now suffers from Alzheimer’s, leaving him with only brief moments of lucidity amidst long periods of frustration and confusion.
Broadbent, whose mother was an Alzheimer’s sufferer, is wonderful as Samuel. The part was originally intended for the redoubtable Pete Postlethwaite, but went to Broadbent after Postlethwaite’s struggle with cancer left him unable to take the role. The naturally avuncular warmth Broadbent brings to all of his characters makes Samuel’s abrupt shifts in mood – guileless and childlike one moment, vicious and aggressive the next – all the more shocking.
Something else that may shock viewers is how many laughs there are in Exile. While it goes against the grain to see comedy in a disease such as Alzheimer’s, Exile’s use of levity alongside bleakness is one of its many strengths. During his research on the illness, writer Danny Brocklehurst was struck by how many relatives of sufferers had comic anecdotes about their experiences, so fed that thread into the story. The tone we end up with swerves between farce and absolute desperation, a combination painfully familiar to anyone who’s watched a family member succumb to the disease.
Director John Alexander (Small Island, Cutting It, Teachers) says he and Brocklehurst wanted to make sure Samuel’s condition wouldn’t be seen merely as a narrative convenience in the thriller. You can understand their concern: the conceit serves the mystery a bit too well.
Samuel’s Alzheimer’s keeps the secret at the heart of this thriller inaccessible even to the person keeping it for the most part. Based on episode one, they needn’t worry however. So far, Exile is neither glib nor facile, just good drama.
It’s down to Olivia Colman as Tom’s straight-talking sister Nancy to deliver many of the laughs, and unsurprisingly for someone with her comedy pedigree, it’s something she does well.
Full-time carer for their father, Nancy’s vulnerability and bitterness are wrapped in a thick layer of no-nonsense gallows humour. Colman’s triumph is in showing both the down-to-earth ‘getting on with it’ side of things and the wordless grief of having utterly lost her father despite being unable to escape from him.
Tom’s experience of homecoming will be familiar territory to anyone who grew up in a small town and moved away. While home, he cringes at teenage memorabilia, tries to avoid former school friends and whiles away an evening in the pub that time forgot. Tom’s Lotus parked in the family driveway looks less like it’s from London and more like it’s from outer space. The symbolism is clear: he doesn’t fit in anymore.
A drunken night between Tom and an old friend leads to the inevitable evaluation of the paths their lives have taken. One, a settled family man, the other a rogue bachelor. The scene could easily have slipped into something trite about ‘what’s really important’ were it not for the fact that everyone in Exile, whether family man or rogue bachelor, is as adrift as each other. The characters are all lost, either looking for a way out, or a way back in.
The part of Tom was more or less written for Simm (Brocklehurst’s notes on the character in early drafts described him as a “rough John Simm”), an actor who does a good line in cocky arrogance with a vulnerable side. Tom isn’t admirable.
Two key moments early on in this episode hint towards the violence in his past and lose him the sympathy of the audience. As the thriller story begins to weave itself through the domestic one, however, there’s a sense that a redemption of sorts is going to be on the cards.
As the first hour plays out, the event which caused Tom to originally leave home is revealed, as is a portrait of a damaged family against an emerging backdrop of political corruption and violence. Broadbent and Simm’s performances as troubled father and son anchor the story in an engaging, painful and very believable relationship. Colman’s wry, down-to-earth Nancy brings unexpected laughter to a harrowing family situation.
There’s a dull tendency amongst TV reviewers to attach the word ‘gritty’ to any drama produced north of Watford. Shorthand for northern realism about folk with hard lives, Exile will, no doubt, be described as such, but it’s a disservice to do so. How about we expand our vocabulary when it comes to well-scripted, tightly-directed drama like this? Affecting, funny, bleak, uncomfortable, and almost entirely compelling, Exile has a lot more going for it than grit.