McMafia episode 1 review

James Norton shines in enticing new BBC thriller McMafia. Spoilers ahead in our review...

This review contains spoilers. 

“God, what does it take to corrupt you?”, a glamorous nightclub goer in Israel asks Alex Godman (James Norton). He’s a strait-laced, self-made investment banker who has done everything by the book. Aware that his Russian heritage could undermine his business’ reputation, he has made a point of never investing in Russian companies and while his Uncle Boris (David Dencik) is clearly mixed up in the world of drug importation and dangerous kingpins, Alex has been very clear that both business and pleasure will stay above board. So what will it take to get this well behaved and devilishly handsome Brit mixed up in the murky gangster underworld? Well that’s easy. Family.

As his Uncle Boris says, “families are the only ones that help without condition”, and in the wake of his beloved uncle’s violent murder it looks like the only way for Alex to keep his family safe from Russian mafia major player Vadim Kalyagin (Merab Ninidze) is to go down some questionable avenues. When Uncle Boris’ throat is slit before his own eyes, it all becomes very clear to Alex. The rumour that Alex’s company were investing in Russia came from Boris himself, who was trying to coax Alex to enter into business with Israeli politician and ‘shipping’ boss Semiyon Kleiman (David Strathairn). With Alex working the numbers, Kleiman would have the power to take down Vadim who not only issued the hit on Boris but drove the Godmans into exile in the first place. Kleiman wins, the Godmans win. In Boris’ sudden absence, Alex no longer has the luxury of deciding if his company’s investor is legitimate or not. Because, as they say, now it’s personal.

McMafia’s first episode is an interesting glimpse into the world of the corporate gangster… and it all makes complete sense. If advancements in technology have enabled people to work remotely from the comfort of their home office, why should large-scale criminal activity be any different? McMafia introduces a world in which the protagonist has the ability to avenge the death of his uncle from a laptop, using his mathematical skill and business savvy to take down the business of the man responsible.

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“These wars are fought in the boardrooms, not on the streets”, Kleiman tells Alex. Gone are the days when the big bosses get their hands bloody; they can now manage their affairs on a screen and hire the little people to do the messy jobs. As Misha Glenny’s 2008 nonfiction book McMafia: Seriously Organised Crime stresses, crime can be handled in much the same way as a big multinational corporation. McDonalds is only better than Burger King because there are more of them. If you increase the competition, McDonalds’ investors would begin to lose faith. Kleiman lays out these basic principles to Alex, hoping to encourage him to push out the competition. It looks like we’re all going to be Team Burger King for this one.

James Norton is reliably brilliant as a young man torn between the honest and successful life he has built for himself and the love for his family, whose affairs have been – and continue to be – a little more dubious. David Dencik, meanwhile, shines as the family’s mafia tearaway Uncle Boris and it is a real shame to lose such a great character so early on. Here’s hoping for a few flashbacks to keep this brilliant performance on our screens a little longer. The female roles are sadly far less enthralling than the male characters, who so far wholly run the show. This could be in part due to the traditional roles assumed by the Russian family (Maria Shukshina is wonderful as the matriarch of the Godman household), although this does not account for the relatively backseat role so far assumed by the talented Juliet Rylance as Alex’s girlfriend Rebecca Harper. With any luck, things will get so treacherous that even (shock horror) the women may have to pitch in to help.

McMafia is largely shot in a series of muted hues. We’re presented with the bleak images of Vadim stubbing his cigarette out in the mounting Moscow snow, the Godmans gathered in black on a bleak British winter’s day for the funeral of Uncle Boris and the greyish, bland décor of Alex’s London home and banking offices. It’s all very… corporate. Perhaps it’s to stress that, in the world of the gangster, everything one does is with an eye on financial gain or perhaps it’s to give the impression that the modern world of crime is nothing like as swanky and glamorous as films and other television representations would lead you to believe (oh hello, The Night Manager, perhaps?) That said, the picture of a sterile world of big crime is replaced with some sumptuous and very glamorous visuals in the episode’s final scene.

Sauntering up to the man who killed his uncle, Alex looks every inch the suave gangster (or dare we say Mr. James Bond?) as he strolls along the grand hall of a large Versailles drinks reception to confront Vadim. Maybe it was an excuse to blow some of the budget saved on Alex’s Ikea furnished home, or maybe it was a convenient set piece to get James Norton in a tux… either way, it goes to show that there are still some serious perks for the men at the top of the crime ladder. It’s a lavish and enticing way to end the episode and definitely encourages its audience to watch on. The question is, will this techy business-focused mafia show hold our attention for all eight episodes?

McMafia continues tomorrow night on BBC One at 9pm.