Rating: 3 out of 5
Reviewer: Rissi C.
When it comes to costume dramas, the Brits are the winners, hands down. Where suspense is concerned, I think American productions can keep pace with them – with exception of Foyle’s War, perhaps. This Masterpiece Mystery! series was something that interested me after reading glowing reports on it and while it can hold up to the best of them, it is also a bit too ambiguous for its own good.
A convicted man who was accused of murder but never admitted his guilt has just been released after a long prison sentence. Now, along with his sons, he has but one thing on his mind: revenge. His short list of people consists of the judge who read the guilty verdict, a cooperating snitch who was given a new identity, and the lead detective who was responsible for the arrest. His anger knows no bounds.
Aurelio Zen (Rufus Sewell) has a case that is pulling him in two conflicting directions and authorities who want much different outcomes. His boss (Stanley Townsend) wants the convicted murderer (Greg Wise) to stay imprisoned irrespective of his new claim to innocence; he confessed to the murder at the time and that is good enough for Mosceti, while the prime minister and his aide Colonna (Ben Miles) want to see the man exonerated. Colonna expects nothing less from Zen than said outcome – and unless Zen assures that, he could make his professional life very difficult. Knowing that Zen is the most tenacious detective makes Colonna’s job that much easier in vetting a detective to work for the Minister. With two such opposite expectations, Zen recognizes that he’ll need some support and enlists the help of the Mosceti’s pretty secretary Tania (Caterina Murino) for information and a possible lead. Smarter than most people give him credit for, Zen sees through the cracks in the case and senses that there is more than meets the eye – especially when someone begins tailing him.
Going into this BBC series, I had a lot of expectations for it, since it had previously enjoyed a lot of commendations and was popular among the viewing audience. Told in the style of the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy or the Julia Roberts helmed Duplicity makes this a very suave, sophisticated production. I am not saying that I didn’t enjoy this set of three hour-and-a-half long installments -- quite the opposite, and I thought it was a really entertaining way to build suspense. But instead of being exciting, this mystery is much more methodical and slow-moving; it takes its time in plotting its story and in the reveal of it all, it relies on mental smarts instead of thrills. Some of the time, I didn’t care one way or another and other times I lost track of where the case was going or what the implications were suggesting. It didn’t help that the series was set in Italy and the actors’ accents were often heavy enough to be a distraction. In my opinion that is somewhat of a failing for the show.
However, on the flip side the acting was superb. Sewell played the role of Zen to perfection. He embodies the role wonderfully and manages a cool old-school kind of detective that even though the setting in modern-day Rome feels more like a classic style. I loved his quiet personality that somehow always earned him the last word – and that last line of dialogue in “Ratking” might not have been a line that will be quoted as TV trivia but it couldn’t have been more suited to the character of Zen or the series. Comprised of three “episodes” (“Vendetta,” “Cabal” and “Ratking”), this is a show the BBC cancelled well ahead of its time. It was just beginning to pick up in my estimation with the third tele-film so it is especially annoying that BBC pulled the plug well before its time. Morally, this series is not on the up and up. At the office, there is a bet going around as to who will be the first man to sleep with Tania; eventually she and Zen do engage in a sexual relationship where an extra-marital affair comes into play; there’s a scene of them lying in bed nude (sheets appropriately placed) sharing kisses and implications reveal they also engage in a tryst at work (on their boss’ desk). Some British slang is present including the term “shag” and some profanity. Violence is limited but there is an attempted suicide, a man is pushed off a bridge, another is beaten to death and yet another is shot. One girl was raped by her father and is now not right in the head.
Flawed as it may have been, this was one British sleuth show that should have been given more leeway and time to develop; it felt like a new spin on an old classic. Even though at times I got a trifle tired of it, I really enjoyed the mysterious unanswered bits of this series, the parts that make the viewer fill in the blanks rather than spelling every single thing out. It offers an indefinite conclusion but also the ability for the viewer to be a “part” of the story; to solve the case right along with the crack investigator and that is always fun. It may have taken me longer than usual to immediately love this series but I do suspect with time it will become one of my favorite mysteries – after all, I have a feeling that I’ll pick up a lot in a second viewing, making it seem like a whole new enigma.