This review contains spoilers.
With very few tweaks, The Watchman could slot in as an episode of dystopian tech anthology series Black Mirror. No matter that it takes place in the present and features technology already so widespread you’ve almost certainly been captured by it multiple times today, its depiction of modern alienation aligns it perfectly with the Charlie Brooker drama. The two also share a composer in Jon Opstad (whose cleverly spare score is the closest thing Stephen Graham could reliably call a co-star here) and the ability to captivate in no time at all.
The Watchman seizes you in its first minutes with a simple but urgent problem. An anonymous woman is preparing to jump to her death – can lone CCTV operator Carl (Stephen Graham) save her from afar?
That’s the first of Carl’s dilemmas in this eventful night-shift, one that repeatedly tries his frustration at only being able to observe and not act on what he sees. Disheartened by the non-existent police response to the information he provides, Carl naively embarks on some vigilante justice that may end up getting him killed.
We don’t know if it does because The Watchman won’t tell us. We see a local drug-dealing gang drive away with “CCTV-Man”—the distinctly unsuperheroic name they give Carl, who directed a pal to steal their money to use as evidence against them—but not his ultimate fate. It’s a frustratingly coy ending for an otherwise excellent drama, more chickening-out than thought-provoking.
It’s not as though any more thoughts needed provoking by that stage. By the end of its hour, The Watchman achieved more than some dramas do in an entire series. Graham’s excellent performance had peeled back Carl’s everyman status to reveal his desperate loneliness. The bank of sci-fi looking screens had prompted us to think about the effect the devices we communicate through have on us and our relationships. A cap had been tipped to social problems and shortages in public services.
The decision to leave Carl’s fate undecided overreached for significance that wasn’t there. It’s hardly a hanging offence, but when an hour of TV is so roundly accomplished, the small disparities show up. The same might be said of the chronology play, opening on Kelly’s panicked phone call then circling back to the same. It’s a well-used trick and as The Watchman is so skilled at creating legitimate, story-built tension, perhaps an unnecessary one here.
The Watchman is the debut drama from writer/director David Nath, a filmmaker who learned his craft on acclaimed TV documentaries Bedlam and The Murder Detectives. Let’s hope drama keeps him because this was impressively done. For an hour with such capital-letter themes (Isolation, Depression, Social Justice…), such dramatic moral decisions and such high-stakes, the dialogue had a pleasingly light touch and was blissfully unexpository. The audience was trusted to keep up and draw connections without points being belaboured. The editing too, was tight, using the CCTV screens (and their intermittent failure) to ramp up tension when needed and to leave space elsewhere. The twist that Carl was divorced and spying on his estranged family crept up deftly and eventually sunk in with real weight.
Stephen Graham’s to blame for that. One of the UK’s leading acting talents, his performances all feel as though they’re born out of utter compassion, whether he’s playing a violent monster or a lonely divorcee. Few could match the convincing tonal swings he delivers here, jolly one minute, desperate and devastated the next.
It was a devastating drama, tense, well-paced and meaningful. I know the next time a CCTV camera looks at me, I’ll be looking back with a different perspective.