Friday, October 12, 2012

When Mash-Ups Won't Mash: BBC's Exile

Jim Broadbent & John Simm in Exile

Exile is a strange hybrid. On one hand, it is a heart-felt family drama about the troubling nature of illness in the aged. On the other, it is a thriller whose main character tries to unravel crimes from the past in Ramsbottom, a town outside of Manchester, England. The biggest problem this BBC miniseries from 2011 (released on DVD last month by BFS Entertainment) faces is that it never finds the necessary connective tissue between the two genres they have mashed together. It is almost as if they don't have the faith that a story about a disgraced man, Tom Ronstadt (John Simm – the British Life on Mars), forced to come back to his childhood home and face up to the fact his once vibrant, talented newspaper-man father, Sam Ronstadt (Jim Broadbent – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince), is in an Alzheimer's Disease death spiral, would be enough to hold an audience.

More's the pity, because the first two hours (it's three hours long) are compelling and moving. We slowly discover why Tom left home in the early 1990s planning to never return. His sister, Nancy (Olivia Colman), in his absence, has become her father's reluctant care giver (their mother had died some years before). The performances by the three leads are outstanding, with Simm's Tom drowning his simmering anger and pain in a stew of casual sex, booze and cocaine. Colman's Nancy is the dutiful daughter who stayed to help her father cope in his declining years. She takes on a world-weary tone, but she never plays the victim. One of the truthful and funny moments is when – after Tom has been home a couple of days – she leaves him a long note about how he must care for his father before she leaves on “vacation,” taking Tom's car as her transport.

Jim Broadbent
But the star of the show is Broadbent. Actors can approach a character like this in two ways: either they angrily thrash about in an over-the-top actorly manner; or they take a quieter, more bewildered approach. This is the road Broadbent chooses, and it is a wise one. Sam Ronstadt was a driven reporter and writer who always tried to uncover the truth. Now, as Alzheimer's slowly eats away at him, he descends into a lost spiral of repetition – “Where's Wendy?” he asks again and again of both Tom and Nancy. Wendy is his long-departed assistant from his newspaper days. No amount of “she's gone” will get him to stop. When Tom mentions the death of his mother to Sam, Sam goes into a quiet, but forceful rant about “what do you mean she's dead.” And yet, he also gets just right those moments of lucidity that can strike people suffering from this degrading condition.

It is a painful performance especially for any of us who've experienced loved ones descending into one form of dementia or another. It makes the heart ache, but it is also cathartic as you recall the good times you had with your own father or mother in the past. (There's a moment in this, without question the most moving part of the series, when Simm shows Broadbent a series of photos and says, “this is the man you were.” It broke my heart).

But then they screw it up.

Writer Danny Brocklehurst
I can only imagine today that executives find a straight-up family drama too difficult to “sell” to the networks – whether in the the UK, US or Canada – so they had to “sexy this up” with a thriller subplot involving a local small-town politician who did something horrible in the past that Sam had very reluctantly covered up. The “big bad” here is such a clich├ęd evil businessman that my brain just shut off during large stretches of it. I just didn't care. So contrived was this subplot (even when they do manage to connect it to the family story that came before) that the characters begin to do things that are just plain stupid. Such as, not once or twice, but three times, Tom and Nancy leave the Alzheimer's-addled Sam at home alone as they go out to “investigate” what happened in the past. The writing, by Danny Brocklehurst, (so good at the start) gets so lazy during these moments that the fact nothing bad happens to Sam is just absurd. Brocklehurst also runs into numerous problems having Tom prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the politician did what he thinks he did. All I kept thinking when he finally blows the whistle late in the proceedings is that any good lawyer would have successfully sued Tom for libel (such as what happens to Mikael Blomkvist at the start of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo novel and film(s)).

I love smart family dramas and I adore a good, cracking thriller. But I've rarely seen attempts to blend the two really work. On the other hand, it's not a complete failure. There are other side stories I found quite funny and believable which I've not discussed, such as where Tom has a fling with his old school mate's wife. What was funny was the cuckolded man's reaction to it. But even this doesn't really connect to the story other than in a shoehorned manner. You can call this an honourable failure, I guess, which is certainly worth seeing for Broadbent's moving performance. But you probably can skip most of the last hour (and then watch the final 10 minutes because they return to the family story) and still find this Exile worth exploring.

 David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.

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