This review contains spoilers.
Missing children feel as customary a part of TV drama as theme music or closing credits. Abducted kids, murdered kids, runaways… the schedules are full of them, or rather, an absence of them. A lost child lends instant pathos and creates an instant viewer-hooking mystery: what happened? Who did it? How could anyone survive it?
As central character Joanna (Jenna Coleman) says in The Cry, the horror of a child disappearing holds a macabre fascination. Everybody wants to look at someone it’s happened to, to judge, and to reassure themselves that it could never happen to them.
It happened to Joanna and Alistair. As far as episode one reveals, their sleeping three-month-old son Noah was taken from his car seat in an Australian backwater while both parents were metres away, picking up a few things at the local shop. It is, as Joanna tells her court-appointed psychiatrist in a deftly performed monologue, the very worst thing that can befall a person.
With just a few strokes, episode one paints an impressively in-depth picture of Joanna and Alistair’s relationship, and of the kind of person Alistair is. Charming and successful, he’s a man used to getting his own way. As the breadwinner, childcare isn’t his responsibility. His work means more than Joanna’s work. His sleep means more than Joanna’s sleep. He means more than Joanna means, and more than the ex-wife and child he cheated on with her – more, you can guess, than any woman he’s ever met.
Played by Top Of The Lake’s Ewen Leslie, Alistair is PR to a politician facing a bubbling scandal, and therefore skilled at controlling perceptions. He gets ahead of the message and knows how to work a crowd. When he and Joanna are readying for a television interview about Noah’s disappearance, he asks her “do you think you might cry?” It could be concern, but it sounds like a suggestion. He’s already approved her choice of demure dress.
Alistair wouldn’t, you’d imagine, have approved the close-fitting red dress and high heels Joanna wears to court in the opening scene. Innocent women aren’t supposed to present as vampish. We don’t yet know for what Joanna is being tried. Is she innocent? Or, having been judged by strangers and found guilty no matter what the truth of the matter, is she simply playing the role in which she’s been cast? After the abduction—if that’s what it was—she says she feels as though she has two faces, one public, one private. Two Joannas.
The remainder of the series pivots on who the real Joanna is, which remains part of the mystery for now. Jenna Coleman’s performance is strong enough to make us want to find out. We know Joanna was isolated, depressed and unsupported after the birth of her son. We know that she felt the need to hide her struggle and lack of bond with Noah from professionals and other parents, lest she be judged inadequate. We know that Alistair’s actions and lies when they first met were beginning to play on her mind.
We also know that Joanna was tired. Sanity-shaking tired. No sleep of more than a couple of hours for month tired. Could tiredness make someone put a child in danger? Of course it might. Do tired new mothers ever dream of escaping? Of course they do. The Cry explores the taboos of motherhood with refreshing honesty.
It tells its story cleverly too. By expertly editing different timeframes together, episode one moves viewers fluently through the before and after, inviting comparisons, posing questions and providing answers in just the right balance. The time switches aren’t disorienting, and aren’t merely stylistic flourishes – they pull their weight by laying out the mysteries of this psychological thriller.
As for theories (ignoring the fact that a quick Google search would reveal the book’s ending), there will be plenty. Was Noah taken by Alastair’s ex-wife Alexandra? By her and Alistair’s teenage daughter Chloe? Were they followed by the old lady on the plane? Was it a passing stranger? Was it Joanna?
There’s enough in The Cry’s plot to keep us guessing, but the thriller aspect doesn’t feel like the main point. Moreover, it’s an exploration of taboos that questions the expectations placed on new mothers, a challenge to inequalities in the division of childcare that so often pass unchallenged, and a prompt to think about the many ways in which women are forced to stand trial without even coming near a courthouse.
Rich and serious, The Cry may share the same missing-child hook as any number of TV thrillers, but episode one, with a stand-out central performance from Coleman and willingness to examine unflattering truths, promises to deliver more than just thrills.
The Cry continues next Sunday the 7thof October on BBC One.