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A repository for junk food television for what feels like an age now, occasionally Channel 4 produces something of actual merit that reminds us of the challenging, boundary pushing programming it commissioned on a regular basis in 1980’s and 90’s. With Southcliffe, its new four-part drama series  written by Tony Grisoni who was also behind one of the stations’ more acclaimed productions of recent years, The Red Riding Trilogy,  they have produced a work of stunning emotional power.

The ever gaunt Sean Harris portrays local handyman Stephen Morton in the eponymous town, a sleepy haven on the North Kent Marshes. There, he takes care of his bed ridden mother, putting himself through a daily regimen of military training exercises.

But something is off. His dead eyed stare, unkempt appearance and unnatural stillness suggest a walking husk, operating purely on instinct, emotion locked up deep inside of him. Upon meeting a young soldier on his return from Afghanistan at the local pub, Morton introduces himself as ex-SAS and invites him on a training mission which soon turns into a sinister game of cat and mouse.

Aggrieved at Morton’s tactics, the young squaddie finds out that Morton was never in the SAS and with his hard case uncle, they hunt down Morton and proceed to beat and humiliate him. The next morning, Morton arises and with unnerving calm, goes on a killing spree in Southcliffe, taking the lives of 16 people.

The series moves between the past, present and future detailing the cause and effect of the shootings on the town’s community as we witness the victims families attempting to come to terms with what at first seems like an inexplicable tragedy.

Having watched the three episodes that have aired so far, I’m no clearer as to the definite motivations driving Harris character but what’s clear is that there is something unnatural afoot in Southcliffe. The townsfolk slowly close ranks as the media in the form of Rory Kinnear‘s cynical London journalist begins to question the community’s role in the massacre and how Morton’s mental instability could have remained unnoticed by the locals for so long.

What is obvious though is that Southcliffe is gripping, absorbing drama beautifully acted by a range of superb Brit thespians. Alongside the aforementioned Harris and Kinnear are Eddie Marsan, heartbreaking as a father who loses his daughter, Shirley Henderson as his wife and perhaps most fascinating of all, Anatol Yusef as a grieving husband and adulterer, overwhelmed with guilt at the loss of his wife and baby.

As bleak as it is, Southcliffe is beautifully rendered by director Sean Durkin ( Martha Marcy May Marlene) and his director of photography Matyas Erdely (Miss Bala) with long, slow, lingering shots of the landscape and town in the early, misty hours combined with tactile Dardennes like camerawork that creates an immediacy and closeness to the characters. The lack of music except in a diegetic sense enhances a sense of claustrophobia and insistent dread that can be overwhelming.

Difficult and challenging to watch at times but for fans of dark, complex, absorbing drama for grown ups, it’s a must see and a reminder that television at it’s best is the equal of cinema.

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