How many different ways are there to write, ‘don’t miss this beautifully made, atmospheric drama’? Whatever the answer, you’re about to read a bunch of them.
The Returned is Channel 4’s first subtitled TV import for decades, and its best new acquisition since Homeland’s first season. It’s a stylishly shot eight-part French series (a second run is being written as we speak) that poses a simple supernatural question: what would happen if, years after their deaths, our loved ones returned to us? Would it be a miracle, or a curse?
Though its back-from-the-dead premise evokes the world of zombies, you can forget about blood-splattered chainsaws and brain-chewing hordes. You’ll find no zippy editing or frantic, high-energy fight sequences here (not in episode one, at any rate). That’s neither The Returned’s story, nor its style.
Set in an isolated Alpine town dominated by imposing mountain peaks and a vast concrete dam, the story follows the fates of half a dozen or so Revenants who return to their families years – decades in some cases – after their deaths. They’re not a mass of shuffling, moaning undead creatures, but individuals exactly as they were in life. At least, that’s how they seem at first.
While focusing on the story of a teenage girl and her return home four years after dying, episode one deftly introduces a handful of characters who react to the arrivals in a variety of ways. Some see the Returned as a gift, others as a torment. All of them, as you’d imagine, fear for their sanity.
Just when it seems The Returned has established its dimensions as a psychological drama using a fantastic premise to explore grief, it pulls at yet more more supernatural threads and introduces a generic thriller element. The combination makes it not only a satisfying emotional drama, provocative fantasy, or murder mystery, but all of the above. Add to that co-writer/director Fabrice Gobert’s sublime composition, and a moody, original score of simple motifs, thrumming pulses and fuzzy sustained guitar by Scottish post-rock band Mogwai, and the result is something very special.
Visually, Gobert combines the styles of directors David Lynch (Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet) and Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) with the eerily lit portraits of US photographer Gregory Crewdson. The Returned’s lighting is a thing of beauty. Only one scene in this first episode, a flashback, occurs in uncomplicated daylight and is all the more shocking for it. The rest either happens at night, or in the window of dusk the French poetically describe as being “entre chien et loup” (between dog and wolf, in reference to the menacing shift between day and night).
Gobert’s camera moves slowly, finding tiny isolated figures in oppressive out-of-scale landscapes, on which it lingers unsettlingly for ever-so-slightly too long. Though scaring us isn’t the first priority, Gobert knows his horror standards, too. Rattling door handles and eerie depth of field tricks remind us that the Returned are uncanny and essentially unknown, just as a series of reflected shots reminds us we’re watching a warped mirror of reality.
It’s a series that knows a thing or two about the power of silence too. The dialogue is sparse where it needs to be, and allergic to clunky exposition. No doubt the sound of the French adds to the sense of uneasy otherworldliness for an English-speaking audience, a bonus for Francophile rosbifs.
At this point, there’s little more to say than tune in (and why not press record at the same time, as there’s rewatch value in the clue-filled opening credits alone). Episode one has beauty, mystery, and the promise of eight extremely rewarding Sunday nights’ viewing. The BBC and ITV have even made drama fans’ choice an easy one by serving up a brace of documentaries and the umpteenth episode of Poirot in the competing slots.
To reiterate then: don’t miss this beautifully made, atmospheric drama. It deserves an audience.
The Returned begins on Channel 4 on Sunday the 9th of June at 9pm. Watch the first trailer, here, and read our interview with the writer/director and producer, here.
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