Friday, October 10, 2014

Microreview [television] : 'The Driver' (BBC - United Kingdom)

A frustrating crime story that is less than the sum of its parts

" 'ang on mate, is that seriously the ending we're going with?"

British television exists in stark contrast to British football. Whilst both are cherished as proud national creations (although the origin of both is in some dispute, the first public transmission and the first national league are pretty good barometers), our English team is a generally-accepted disappointment that receives derision from the wider world and our drama is a reassuring mainstay that gains plaudits from the wider world (unlike, in fact, our indie film scene). And to continue the analogy, whilst our clubs are full of talented foreign players who enliven the sport yet restrict homegrown talent-growth, our screens are full of local players who run abroad first chance they get -

it's all his fault

and theirs

and his

and hers

not sure what he does these days though

Now, you can keep Gerard Butler. No, seriously. Please. And thank you for Gillian Anderson. Think we did well there. And Maggie Gyllenhaal can come round anytime. Stop sending Zellweger though. Yet many actors manage a Beckham and enjoy a little of both worlds and are able to jump from London stage to Hollywood soundstage to UK telly and back again. One who seems to be succeeding in joining Martin Freeman and Idris Elba at this dual existence after years in the game is Liverpool-born David Morrissey. I used to spot him in my local supermarket until he suddenly appeared drawling menacingly at the above teacher in The Walking Dead. Like the good subordinate the UK media is, the US programme was the first point of reference last month as Morrissey promoted a new TV drama, The Driver, which he co-produced and stars in. It was slightly odd hearing posh-voiced breakfast show presenters enquire into his vicious Governor character when it was abundantly clear that they, like most people here, don't get to see the show unless they buy it or dig around online. Praised it may be, but the audience outside of genre fans and TV critics is a fraction of what previous Morrissey dramas like The Deal or State of Play or Holding On attracted by the sheer nature of being on at 9pm on one of the top four channels.

So he is a household name, and a familiar face, back on television after a spell abroad. So what? What does this have to do with the NOAF areas of interest, other than that he one hung around zombies? Well, The Driver merits attention regardless of its star as a very good example to our readers of what the reality of a UK television crime drama is. And that is because it is well-produced, downbeat, unsexy and ultimately a bit unsatisfying. It is so far from C.S.I. in terms of style or Fargo or Bad in terms of emotional and technical beauty that it might as well be a different species. From high-watermarks o fUK drama like Cracker and Prime Suspect, it seems everyone thins cop'n'crime shows must involve unglamorous, miserable and grey scenarios peoples by unglamorous, miserable and grey characters. So rarely is there any of the wit, black humour and rebellious charm that made both those series stand apart. And here The Driver is - yet another attempt at a thriller that fails in the end to be thrilling because it tries so hard to be real, and this is the British disease : a faltering uncertainty of genre and of purpose. Scandinavians and France brings us verité crime every year of such stylish quality that our homegrown fare rarely keeps up. There are many exceptions of course (The Honourable Woman and Line of Duty spring to mind as recent ones) but The Driver disappointed me especially because I expected Morrissey and co to have joined those, rather than tamely fitting into its own constraints.

The plot is simple and open for more development than the three short hours allow. Vince McKee is a down-at-heel father of two who drags his grey, slumped face through days and nights of taxi driving in Manchester for drunks and cheats. Largely ignored by his wife and daughter and shorn of passion, he nervously welcomes a childhood friend back into his life when they are released from a long jail term for robbery. When that friend, played by the never-less-than-superb Ian Hart (the best John Lennon ever), suggests a gig on the side driving for a criminal boss (an enjoyable Colm Meany), Vince soon ignores his safe-life morals and leaps at the chance for something new. 

"it's a fact I was Chief O'Brien, sure, an, yes, he was in that there Harry Potter, but, if you'd pretend like we are intimidating and tough gang members, that'd be grand, now"
Handed (improbably-quickly in my view, but I've never been asked to drive for a local mob) the keys to a shiny BMW and a dodgy mobile phone, he quickly starts doing drop offs, pick ups, and other menial, safe tasks. As his initiation into this world gradually continued throughout the bulk of episode one (which begins with a superb flash-forward to a car chase with police, so we know it's going somewhere major), I was delighted by the careful pace, the gentle detailing of Vince's daily failures and sufferings, the awkward detachment between him and his family despite the love there, the subtle use of Manchester's dour landscape (it's a city I love and where I studied, but it never gets shown in anything but its true colour of wet grey). This was a series on not just the right road but an uncertain one, seemingly adopting the flavours of urban modern noir to propel its real-world emotional drama.

And then the car chase we saw earlier arrives in the timeline. And it goes nowhere and nothing really  happens. He skilfully escapes the police and I sensed a Ryan Gosling-esque skill emerging which would drive (sic) the action and empower the character. Yet apart from sloppy speeding at the very end of the tale, that is all we get of Morrissey as action hero, and he doesn't talk about it to anyone, nor does it effect the plot in itself. It basically was jazzed-up to give a cool, exciting opening scene, yet whereas, say, Breaking Bad's opening intrigued and was followed up to be shown as a crucial moment in the plot, this was just irrelevant enough to make me think the writer thought, 'We need a bit of action - I'll chuck a car chase in there'. 

"god, I miss driving on the right... over zombies"

It may seem like I'm fixating on one moment too much, but this sums up the issue I had with the project - it never stopped feeling like an exercise in 'I want to make a dark, serious crime drama', rather than one based on having a killer plot that would work in any form. This feeling never left me for the reminder of the three-part series, despite some wonderful moments, a superb cast, and great filmmaking. As Vince realises he has bitten off more than he can chew and is trapped and surrounded by dangerous colleagues, the police and his intelligent and suspicious wife, the plot is decided to 'heat up' with various moments that up the ante. Yet these incidents feel like things Vince has to experience because that's what happens in these sort of programmes, rather than seeming to be the natural and unpredictable flow of life, cause and effect, and chance. A rival is dumped and left to possibly die so Vince goes back to save him. Then we never see this person again. He was purely there to show us our hero does 'the right thing' despite it all, and to add danger of being found out as a 'sympathiser or rebel', and to give the police a reason to sniff around in a most unbelievable way.

By the third and final episode, the family issues and the police investigation into this rivals' injuries meet and clash as Vince is harassed then arrested. Yet the writer salves both with quick resolutions that never ring true. This is neither a searing imagining of what the criminal-justice system does to a relatively petty offender, nor what crime does to a human mind or a family. They have no time to react or to convince us they are at the mercy of these forces, despite a stellar yet believable turn from Claudie Blakely as Vince' wife (full of love, pride and fear). Added to the crime element is a sub-plot of their mourning the loss of their adult son to a hermetic cult, and whilst this helps show the pain and emptiness that Vince was hoping to assuage with his acts, it feels excessive - as his old friend comments, isn't it enough motivation simply better to not be 'fookin bored' with your life, even if it winds you up in jail? 

But no time to explore such inciting moral conundrums. No time to get to know behind the supporting characters' one-note fronts. No time to build up excitement. We are rushed to a conclusion that feels like an ending written because an ending is always needed, and its final shot and final lines of dialogue are, whilst not the worst I've been subjected to this year by a long way, are far, far short of the quality that could have been achieved here by a talented and experienced director and cast. Maybe they just needed an in-between job to pay the bills. Maybe there was no intention or expectation of a follow-up series. Maybe Morrissey wants to get back to the sunshine in America and find a new eye-patch to try on. Or maybe endings like the one inflicted on us here are why British drama is often England-at-Brazil'14 rather than, well, America-at-Brazil'14 - too complacent, not passionate and not eager enough to dazzle.

Post-infection Atlanta

Post-industrial Manchester

Baseline Assessment : 4/10 not very good, mainly because it should have been.

Written by English Scribbler