Saturday, January 24, 2015

Storytime: The Missing and Babylon

Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in The Missing.

He does not have Daniel Craig’s suave charisma or Clive Owen’s intellectual charm or Gerard Butler’s (woefully overexposed) sexy swagger. James Nesbitt, ostensibly also a child of the United Kingdom but born to Protestant parents in disaffected Northern Ireland, has brought his own unique brand of intensity to the acting profession for decades. His recent triumph was as a father whose young son is abducted in The Missing, a taut eight-episode BBC series that was co-produced by and broadcast on the Starz pay-cable channel late last year.

I first saw Nesbitt, who turned 50 less than two weeks ago, as an Irish protest organizer trying desperately to keep things peaceful in Bloody Sunday. That award-winning 2002 television film, directed by Paul Greengrass (soon famous for The Bourne Supremacy), depicts a terrible chapter in world history. The British Army killed 13 unarmed demonstrators staging a cilvil rights march in Derry on January 30, 1972. Think Selma with white faces and a brogue. In The Missing, he inhabits the role of Tony Hughes, a Brit on a 2006 vacation in rural France with his wife Emily (the excellent Frances O’Connor, who portrayed an equally conflicted mom in 2001‘s A.I. Artificial Intelligence) and son Oliver (Oliver Hunt). The boy, age six, disappears and the story follows an agonizing search for clues by his distraught parents. They must contend with a duplicitous local police force and various suspicious civilians, including a wealthy developer (Ken Stott) and a convicted but remorseful pedophile (Titus De Voogdt).

Over a period of eight years, only retired French detective Julien Baptiste (brilliant Tcheky Karyo) sticks with the case, which may involve a child trafficking ring. Through sheer persistence, he and Tony keep turning up evidence, albeit some of it so elusive that the quest for justice seems like a revolving door. Although promising leads crumble, Tony becomes more and more obsessed, even as the years go by and many others suspect Oliver may be dead. The doubters can talk themselves into reluctant acceptance, even complacency, but not him. His paranoid vigilance is unrelenting. Viewers might ask themselves: “Would I ever give up if my kid was snatched?” Emily, initially frozen with grief, eventually finds a measure of solace in a relationship with another man (Jason Flemyng) who’s also a father. But she senses that status means always remaining on the margins of someone else’s family. Tony’s in a perpetually dark place where Emily is unable to linger, especially as he consumes too much booze and pushes people away. He’s a harsh realist, like Rusty Coehl (Matthew McConnaughey) in True Detective, but without the existential cool. Tony is all raw nerves. For him the bromide “move on with your life” is an insult, a betrayal. He comes across as a guy in desperate need of anger management classes until you remember that his fury is justified.

Tcheky Karyo, Francis O'Connor and James Nesbitt.

The fictitious tourist town, Chalons du Bois, is charming at first, then menacing once the underbelly of corruption has been exposed. Sibling writers Harry and Jack Williams (who say they were not inspired by the widely publicized disappearance of little Madeline McCann while on a 2007 holiday in Portugal) gave their thriller even more cliffhangers by virtue of a narrative that moves back and forth through time. So, a shifty cop (Said Taghmaoui) is mysteriously absent in the contemporary scenes but his full saga isn’t unveiled until the conclusion approaches. In 2014, Julien Baptiste walks with a limp that’s unexplained for several episodes. A key witness with a junkie past somehow surfaces with a new identity; the transition is unclear for quite a while. A ruthless journalist (Arsher Ali) seems to have no compassion for the sorrowful subjects of the story he’s pursuing, yet his fate twists in a startling way. Director Tom Shankland has a lot on his plate – the dissolution of a marriage, the scourge of drug addiction, the lack of resources battling crime, the fickle nature of public sympathy – but he manages to explore each side issue unhurriedly in a thriller with breathless momentum. Much as I admire James Nesbitt, Tcheky Karyo (of Greek and Turkish descent) is the revelation in this drama. Nothing gets by his intuitive Julien, a man who exhibits a watchful presence, a clever method of investigating and a deep wellspring of humane motivations. He provides the calm balance to Tony’s hot-headed reactions. The term eminence grise comes to mind. The Missing will resume in a future season with a completely different tale and cast, much like True Detective

The scowling James Nesbitt in Babylon

Meanwhile, Nesbitt fans can get their fix over on the Sundance channel with Babylon, a six-part black comedy carried aloft by a steroidal whirlwind. He trades in his turn as grief-stricken dad for a coldly calculating law enforcement officer in this new satirical series, executive-produced by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 2008), that first ran on Channel 4 television in the United Kingdom. Nesbitt’s London police commissioner hires an American communications director (Brit Marling, 2011’s Another Earth) to improve the severely tattered reputation of Scotland Yard and run interference on future blunders. Her qualifications? She worked for Instagram.

– Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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