This is a spoiler-free review and comes from Den of Geek UK.
Secrets! Everybody’s got ‘em. Sordid little lies tucked away behind incognito tabs and fake online usernames. Maybe you diddled your expenses or your mortgage application or your son’s clarinet teacher. Let’s say you robbed Peter to pay Paul, then knocked Peter over the back of the head with a golf club and fed his remains to Paul’s pig. Whatever foul canker you’ve shoved so far up inside your folds nobody could ever find it, you’d better hope that you don’t get a visit from the Stranger.
The Stranger is Netflix’s new UK thriller, adapted by Danny Brocklehurst (Shameless, Exile) from the 2015 novel of the same name by crime mystery superstar Harlan Coben (The Five, Safe). It’s about a mysterious woman who goes around spilling people’s darkest secrets. She turns up, whispers a devastating truth about a loved one in your ear and then whoosh, she’s gone.
Where, who, how and why are all questions the series dutifully ticks off over eight highly bingeable instalments. Be warned: this is precision-engineered viewing designed to keep you on the sofa lazily slurping up twist after twist. Every episode bar the last ends in three minutes of frenzied discovery that leave our characters tossed in a variety of perils. Watching it in one hypnotised go is more or less a contractual obligation.
The Stranger’s binge-ability works greatly in its favour, because it keeps you too busy to reflect in any depth on what you’re seeing. The ‘hang on, what an enormous contrivance’ thoughts won’t arrive until you’ve rushed through the lot, and by that point, you won’t be thinking about it much at all. It’ll just leave you fed and full, like a tasty M&S carbonara.
The highlights are in the cast. Hannibal’s Richard Armitage is a strong lead as lawyer and family man Adam Price, while Happy Valley’s Siobhan Finneran is so capable and likeable as detective DS Johanna Griffin that if you were ever murdered, you’d want her as lead investigator in your case. The pair of them easily cushion any jolts over bumpy dialogue.
The Stranger herself (gender-swapped from the book at Coben’s behest) is played by Black Mirror’s Hannah John Kamen. She wreaks havoc around the unspecified Northern town (it’s Stockport), unearthing shameful acts and confronting people with realities they don’t want to face. Some lies even come out without her involvement, as if her mere presence in the local area is a kind of laxative for difficult-to-pass truths.
Those three are joined by Stephen Rea (Counterpart, The Crying Game) as a curmudgeonly former police officer whose legal battle Adam is fighting, Dervla Kirwan (Strangers, Ballykissangel) as Adam’s wife Corinne, Anthony Head (The Split, Merlin) as a local kingpin property developer, neighbour and colleague Shaun Dooley (Broadchurch, Gentleman Jack), Jennifer Saunders (Absolutely Fabulous) as a local café owner, and Paul Kaye (Vera, After Life). There are a dozen other characters, almost all with their own storylines and revelations on top of that lot. Underpopulated this series isn’t.
Quite the opposite – it’s stuffed with character and incident. Like colourful pins on a whiteboard encircled by multiple threads, almost everybody we meet comes with a mystery to solve. Adam and Corinne’s eldest son Thomas (Jacob Dudman) and his schoolfriends are part of a parallel investigation that weaves in and out of the main story. The teen plot isn’t acted with many shades of light and dark, but it keeps things moving.
It all keeps moving. The Stranger is thoroughly plotted, with carefully allotted motivations and mini-mysteries for all, even if none manage to reveal any particular human truths. A does X to B because they’re jealous of C, which makes C do X to get back at A. It’s a thriller with all the planning Post-Its in all the right places. Wherever there’s a question, there will be an answer – if you haven’t already guessed some of the more generic twists. Seasoned thriller viewers will predict many, but there’s such a high volume that another surprise will be along any minute.
Its humor is another highlight. A stab of Brocklehurst’s former writing gig on Shameless comes through in some of the more comedic and unexpected elements, adding blessed brightness to a genre often mired in noir. Unnatural thriller elements like car chases and lengthy foot pursuits are softened by naturalistic humour, helped along by Kadiff Kirwan’s DC Wesley Ross (or ‘the infant’ as Johanna calls him) sight-for-sore-eyes Jennifer Saunders, and Shaun Dooley’s matey neighbour Tripp.
It’s an enjoyable and entertaining series that, while it doesn’t leave a lasting impression, also doesn’t allow any time for boredom. The transition from the US-set book – a world of lacrosse clubs, guns, domestic flights and ad execs proselytising on the American dream – is successfully done and keeps the whole thing’s feet on the ground, give or take a little tedious stoner philosophising inherited from the novel about whether secrets are cancer or whether they could even be like, maybe, good?
All in all, there’s plenty to recommend it, and plenty of lesser ways to spend six and a bit hours in front of Netflix. Have at it.