This review contains spoilers.
Exile is an ambitious drama. Perhaps not in terms of length, setting or budget, but in terms of what it wants to be – a conspiracy thriller that’s both personal and political, about characters and relationships you can really feel. The good thing is that, for the most part, it’s delivering.
The second instalment takes up the thriller thread introduced in Sunday’s opener without losing sight of the characters established. Tom is now in full investigative reporter mode, ignoring his sister’s wishes and disrupting his family’s fragile equilibrium as he attempts to discover the secrets his father is hiding. Bullheadedly determined to dig up the past, Tom’s actions seem callous and selfishly motivated at first, entirely in keeping with the man we met in episode one.
Yet a change has taken place. Tom has learnt how to care for his father, despite exposing him to perturbing situations and stressful interrogations. He grins at his Dad happily chanting football songs at a match, and makes sure he comes to no harm on a half-dressed constitutional in the snow. It’s not much, but it’s a believable development, and Simm is utterly convincing as the conflicted son.
More than once though, Tom treats his father like a locked box that will open if shaken with enough force. There’s a hint of cruelty in his deliberately confronting Samuel with Metzler (Timothy West), a man whose presence could no doubt cause real distress to his father. The meeting is pregnant with tension, as well it should be, since we’re firmly in thriller territory now.
All the genre fundamentals are present and correct. We watch Tom scroll through microfiche to a pulsing soundtrack, and stroke his chin over decades-old newspaper headlines. He collects a name from here, a shred of evidence from there, and just when he’s on the brink of getting further, something gets in his way, whether it’s a reluctant source, a couple of brutality-happy police officers or a hit and run.
I wonder if other viewers felt like me during these overly familiar genre devices, and were impatient to return to the brilliantly-drawn Ronstadt family. We were never kept from them long though. Exile attempts a tricky balancing act, and pulls it off without much of a wobble. Whichever thriller elements are in play, the audience isn’t taken far from the compelling relationships between Sam, Tom and Nancy which form the heart of the story.
A different relationship, which sadly edges Tom and Nancy’s more interesting brother/sister pairing onto the sidelines, is Tom’s emerging love story with barmaid Mandy. Trying to uncover the complicated truth about Metzler, Tom ends up simultaneously tangled in a romantic plot that’s almost as complex.
Exile’s male characters are better conceived than its women in many ways. As Mandy, Claire Goose is something of a cipher so far, a passive bedfellow who strokes Tom’s forehead when he’s troubled, but doesn’t do much else. Her husband, Mike (Shaun Dooley), is in a much more convincing mess about the end of their marriage, and the turns his life has taken. Mandy’s obviously set to be a maternal nurturer for Tom, and comforting though that may be, is it too much to expect a bit of conflict, or even humour from the character?
Humour’s not completely absent, though there are fewer played-for-laughs moments than in yesterday’s opening episode. There’s a pure touch of Paul Abbott class when Mike holes himself up in a caravan in the couple’s driveway as Mandy carries on with Tom in the marital bed. A joke worthy of Shameless at its best, that.
There are other moments of Shameless-style silliness to leaven the mood, most involving the wonderful Olivia Colman. Colman’s character, Nancy, cries out for uncomplicated fun as an escape, then regrets it as soon as the real world swings back into view. She’s left frustrated and unsatisfied by her dalliances with boring dentists, but takes what she can get. Her normal routine is about to take a hit though, as a brief, wordless scene towards the end of the episode reveals.
Abbott’s original concept for Exile was as a feature film set in the States before the idea was relocated to Oldham, and I’m glad it never made the trip across the pond. We’ve had plenty of good U.S.-set thrillers, but it’s a welcome change to see the gumshoeing take place against a backdrop of terraced miners’ cottages and the rolling Lancashire countryside.
Exile is a confident piece of story-telling, bearing all the marks of Paul Abbott and Danny Brocklehurst’s experience. Episode 2 leaves its viewers with a mighty bombshell, preparing the ground for what promises to be a compelling final instalment. I’ll certainly be watching.
Read our review of episode 1, here.