Thursday, September 11, 2014

Happy Valley: Do You Know Where Your Children Are?

Sarah Lancashire as Sergeant Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley

As Catherine Cawood, a police sergeant in the West Yorkshire valleys in the six-episode TV series Happy Valley, Sarah Lancashire gives a performance that’s part kitchen-sink drama, part hard-boiled noir. (The show, which aired on BBC One this past spring, is now available for streaming on Netflix.) It’s the kind of full-bodied, lived-in acting that brings the viewer so close to the character that you may feel that you can smell the cigarette smoke in her hair. The weary, middle-aged Catherine lives with her sister Clare, a recovering drug addict played by the wonderful Siobhan Finneran, whose own hair is a messy rat’s nest that sometimes looks like a bad wig, and is still more flattering than the tight wicked-stepmother ‘do she wore as the conniving servant O’Brien in Downton Abbey. Catherine is also taking care of her small grandson, Ryan (Rhys Connah), who has a perilous habit of asking questions for which there are no simple answers.

That covers a lot of ground, because Catherine’s daughter committed suicide while Ryan was an infant. This effectively turned Catherine into a single adoptive mother, because her husband, Richard (Derek Riddell), moved out of the house and divorced her rather than participate in raising the boy. Catherine believes that Ryan was the product of a rape by James Norton (Tommy Lee Royce), a swaggering, misogynistic lout who’s been locked up for an unrelated offense and has just been released from prison. But she doesn’t blame Ryan for how he was conceived or for whatever role those circumstances had in taking her daughter away from her; she looks at him and sees the only living connection to her daughter that she has left. And although she lashes out angrily at her ex-husband (who’s since remarried) for his short-sightedness and selfish cruelty, when she’s speaking confidentially with someone and feeling vulnerable, she confesses to understanding how the discovery of their daughter’s death might have hit him in a way that it didn’t hit her. The daughter hanged herself in their home, and he’d never seen a dead body before. Because of her job, she had.

Alan McKenna and Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley
The plot of Happy Valley grows out of a spontaneous, ill-considered criminal plan sprung by a petty-minded man who feels aggrieved, and who has no idea what he’s getting himself into. That’s enough right there to remind a viewer of the Coen brothers movie Fargo, but as that speech about her own familiarity with violent death suggests, Catherine is no sweet-tempered Marge Gunderson, baffled and confused as to how people can do such awful things to each other. Catherine is more inclined to expect the worst of people, and she’s be confused, and embarrassed, when someone whose life she’s pulled out of the abyss thanks her too effusively and begs for the chance to do something for her in return. It’s not that she’s a Lone Ranger type who expects no reward for doing her job; it’s more as if she’s so conscious of her own failings and ugliest thoughts that she can’t accept anyone thinking she’s a hero. Any favor she accepted under those terms would be granted under false pretenses.

Happy Valley was created and written by Sarah Wainwright, whose previous hit was Last Tango in Halifax, a family comedy-drama about a couple of widowed senior citizens, played by Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid, who are reunited after sixty years and get married. Last Tango is a very sweet, pleasant show, but the central situation doesn’t generate much drama, maybe because Wainwright has acknowledged that it’s based on the late-in-life romance of her own mother and a man from her past who she reconnected with on Facebook. Most of the messy emotional power in it comes from Sarah Lancashire, who plays the old woman’s daughter, a divorced headmistress who has fallen in love with a younger woman. Wainwright must have felt that her writing for that secondary character had barely scratched the surface of what Lancashire has to give, and on Happy Valley, she really goes all out: Lancashire has more than one long, tearful monologue, in addition to violent action scenes where she gets the tar beaten out of her, and high-pitched confrontation scenes where she gets to give her lungs an angry workout.

It’s no small testament to Lancashire’s talent that you never want less of her, and it speaks well of Wainwright’s good sense that, while shaping this series around her, she’s been careful to pack a strong supporting cast around her. Besides Siobham Finneran, there are especially spirited performances by the young actress Charlie Murphy as a kidnap victim and Joe Armstrong as a low-level gangster who doesn’t need much encouragement to start thinking he’s the antihero of a Tarantino movie. (When Catherine interviews the man Armstrong has been relaying his ransom demands to and asks if he can tell her anything about the man on the other end of the phone, the bitter reply is, “He thinks he’s funny.”) And James Norton manages to convey the vulnerable, hurt quality buried deep inside the sadistic rapist without making him a whit more sympathetic; he suggests how this guy could seem attractive enough to get close enough to people like Catherine’s daughter, even though to let him in is to get hurt by him. Happy Valley is a star vehicle, but, like last year’s similarly excellent Broadchurch, it’s also a crime thriller that doubles as a portrait of a place and a community. It really pushes the envelope on violence, especially sexual violence, but the horror doesn’t feel exploitative. It’s there to show what turned Catherine so hard; it’s there to show why this place and community need someone like her, and it does a better and more rational job of it than the movies that tried to convince you that San Francisco really needed Dirty Harry.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. Club, HitFlix, Nerve, HiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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