Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Gloriously Flawed Jane Tennison: Prime Suspect 1-7

Helen Mirren as Inspector Jane Tennison, in Prime Suspect 2 (1992).

It was with great sadness that I watched the last few minutes of Prime Suspect: The Final Act in 2007 because it meant that I would never again see any new material featuring the character of Jane Tennison – one of the finest character ever created for television. Now that the entire series has just been released as a DVD box set, it's a perfect time to look back at this landmark program. Over the course of 15 years (1992-2007), in seven miniseries, Helen Mirren played Tennison as a work-driven woman who pushed back societal barriers of sexism, misogyny and finally ageism to become a Detective Chief Inspector at a London police division. Later in the series, she became Deputy Superintendent in Manchester and finally ended up back in London. Unlike most shows that would be happy just dealing with the uplift of an independent woman proving her chops amongst the men, Tennison was a deeply flawed woman who paid an expensive price for her ambitions. Prime Suspect never condemned her for her drive, but rather looked compassionately at the high cost of it: failed relationships, alcoholism, unwanted pregnancies, ridicule, petty jealousy and loneliness.

As Tennison, Mirren never turned her warm and fuzzy. She was a huge challenge for both the viewers and the show's other characters. She was a glorious prickly cactus who demanded to be accepted on her own terms. If you didn't like the way she did things, she didn't care, especially when she knew she was right. When she was wrong, though, and refused to believe it, you'd cringe at her blind tenacity, and celebrate even more when she was right. Tennison also had a remarkable tenderness for the victims and marginalized people she encountered. For me, probably the most harrowing series was Prime Suspect 3 (1993) which dealt with a wide-spread pedophile ring. As Tennison dug deeper and deeper to get at the truth behind the killing of a 'rent boy', you are plunged into this sordid, unnerving, disturbing world with her. The damaged characters she encountered still live with me 17 years after it was broadcast. Her character pulled no punches, neither did her co-stars or the show's creators.

There were many actors, some at the start of their careers, who gave Mirren incredible support throughout the run. They included Ralph Fiennes (The English Patient), Liam Cunningham (Harry Brown), David Thewlis (Harry Potter films), Jonny Lee Miller (Trainspotting), Ciarán Hinds (There Will Be Blood, Rome), Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom, Michael Clayton), Mark Strong (Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood), Peter Capaldi (Local Hero, In the Loop) and Tom Bell (a great character actor who passed away shortly after The Final Act was filmed). All these fine performers brought their A game when they worked on this show. Writers, such as program creator, Lynda La Plante, and directors like Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) gave Mirren wonderful material or landscapes to work with in order to create this flawed, fascinating character.

Prime Suspect also never compromised in order to just get another one on the air. Every series, even Number Four – which featured three 100-minute stand-alone episodes, not just one complete story – maintained its level of quality. The Cracker mini-series (1993-1996, plus one more in 2006) – starring Robbie Coltrane as the know-it-all shrink Fitz that, for many years, gave Prime Suspect a run for its money – destroyed itself by broadcasting another series just months before the last Prime Suspect. It was one too many. The last Cracker was filled with childish evil Americans and a cack-handed use of The Troubles in Northern Ireland as an idiotic stand-in for Iraq. It soiled my memory of a show that, until then, was frequently the equal of Prime Suspect.

As the final seconds ticked away three years ago on the final Prime Suspect, I was sad it was over but completely happy that, like Tennison, the show went out on its own honourable terms. Now, at least, I can revisit her and her world anytime I wish. But, like most things in life, it will never be as good as the first time.

David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is about to launch his first novel, The Empire of Death, at an event in Toronto on Tuesday, October 19, 2010. Details to follow.

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