This review contains spoilers.
Channel Four’s The Fear, written by Richard Cottan (Wallander), had an interesting premise: If dementia can make gentle people violent and turn banal memories into a source of torment for the sufferer, then what would it do to an already-violent man whose past contains acts of real horror?
Destroy him, is the simple answer provided by Ritchie Beckett (Peter Mullan), a Brighton-based gangster turned property magnate whose cushy set-up is disrupted by early-onset dementia. Dragged into turf negotiations with a gang of Albanian crims by his impulsive elder son Cal (Paul Nicholls), over the course of the four-part drama, Ritchie lost control of his patch, his family, and his mind.
Since Tony Soprano first squeezed his hulk into Dr Melfi’s psychiatrist chair, the gangster-with-issues conceit has been a familiar one. People are fascinated by the minds of killers and psychopaths, the argument must run, so watching those minds disintegrate should be double bubble for viewers.
Why then, Peter Mullan’s brilliance notwithstanding, did I find The Fear so unaffecting? For me, it was the combo of gangster cliché and visual gimmickry. Designed to put us in the disoriented position of a man losing his grip, director Michael Samuels’ arsenal of Dutch angles, extreme close-ups, POV shots, and wobbly flashbacks was more distancing than it was involving. There was so much point-of-view work in the British gangster drama, sometimes it felt like watching a Guy Ritchie-directed episode of Peep Show.
Though undeniably stylish and deftly done (one particularly well-designed shot saw Ritchie’s iris morph into the Brighton coastline), The Fear’s visual and aural tics erected a flashy wall between the viewer and the emotional truth of Ritchie’s situation, making him more oddity than human being. One of the strengths of Mullan’s performance is in how little he does (compare his captivating silence in episode one with Paul Nicholls’ manic cockney turn as none-too-bright Cal), so adding the whistles and bells was unnecessary noise.
Mullan was by far The Fear’s best asset. Few actors can match his effortless slide from menace (“They’re just evil, evil bastards” says Cal of the Albanians, “Yeah well, so am I” replies Ritchie, and who’d argue with him) to vanity-free vulnerability as his condition worsened.
The symptoms of Ritchie’s illness accelerated at a fair whack. He went from relative normality in episode one to putting the milk in the oven and staggering vacant-eyed around the South Downs in just a few days. Unfortunately, the generic crime drama in which he found himself in didn’t ramp up to match.
By the last instalment, we weren’t exactly waiting on tenterhooks for that slight revelation as to what really happened on the night that Ritchie kept reliving, and when it did arrive (thirty years ago, Jo shot the young girl whose memory was haunting Ritchie) it changed very little. We ended up back at the beginning, with a confused Ritchie walking out on Brighton beach to face a bullet we now know was intended for him as saviour, not punishment.
The support from the likes of Anastasia Hille as partially estranged wife Jo, and Four Lions’ Nigel Lindsay was fine. Not usually one to leave scenery tooth mark-free, Richard E. Grant did pleasingly little in a thin role as foppish plastic surgeon Seb, and Game of Thrones’ Harry Lloyd (having shed the blonde wig and adopted a Brett Anderson ‘do’) put in a similarly restrained performance as younger son Matty. The rent-a-villain Albanian gang the Becketts were battling on the other hand, displayed all the character depth of the free toy in a cereal box, and happily, about as much dialogue.
The real support of course, came from Brighton itself, which winked cheekily in the backdrop of most scenes. Those who know the city will have enjoyed how The Fear captured its seedy beauty and oddball residents, from the unicyclists, drag queens and hen parties to a nod to one of the city’s familiar musical residents – Nick Cave – in the Grinderman track Ritchie played in its opening moments.
Just as the BBC’s Exile did last year, by using dementia as a plot point in a thriller, The Fear ran the risk of seeming to exploit rather than empathise with sufferers of the illness (those pulpy psych horror thrillers that cheapen schizophrenia and fetishize mental asylums spring to mind). In both cases, the central performances were strong enough to deflect any such accusations, but in his sensationalist story of paper-thin crims, explosions, strip bars and mutilated corpses, Mullan had to do much more to convince me.
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