It's doubtful anyone involved in the productions featured in TV One's current Sunday Theatre New Zealand season has actually uttered the phrase "Kenneth Branagh, eat my dust", but given the quality of the first two offerings, at least a thought-bubble may have formed.
Shackleton's Captain, the first feature, managed to take the story of the heroism and folly of the Antarctic explorer's greatest adventure even further than Branagh's stunning portrayal in 2002 - and that's saying something.
Craig Parker played Frank Worsley, the captain of the ill-fated Endurance, and in an elegant blend of drama, historic footage and photos, and interviews with historians and other experts, the programme blended entertainment and insight seamlessly.
The key to the venture's success was to base the narrative on John Thomson's book of the same name, refocusing our attention from the vainglorious expedition leader to the New Zealander who, by many measures, was the real leader and the person most responsible for ensuring the mission didn't end in complete disaster. His navigational prowess, and the challenging psychology of his and Ernest Shackleton's famous rescue trek to South Georgia, made spell-binding viewing.
And as a regular visitor to the Karori cemetery where the Endurance's carpenter Harry McNish lies, beneath a lovely bronze of the ship's cat, Mrs Chippy, this reviewer was specially moved by this retelling of the painful decision to kill first her, and then the ship's much loved cargo of sled dogs as the going got steadily grimmer on the ice. So often it's the small details that make the enormity of a story the more affecting, and the writer and director of his piece understood that completely.
The psychology of long-haul endurance was also the anchor-point of this week's feature, Safe House, another true story - though necessarily with details and identities changed. Every bit as gripping as any quality fictional crime drama, it told the story of a solo mother in the mid-1980s, who, unable to fend off her drug-dealing ex-partner, became dangerously embroiled in his nasty subsequent crimes. As an unwilling witness to a brutal murder, she was seized, along with her children, by the police and detained in a secret location for what became an unbearable stretch of cabin fever for all concerned.
The programme tacitly makes the point that police procedure and resourcing have come a long way since then, as, hopefully, have the force's inter-personal skills. From the start, her three police minders make inevitable assumptions about Carole, a former party-girl with two children by different fathers, and a history with Tony, a seriously ugly customer. They treat her like dirt, not least by using as her safe-house prison an ostentatiously grotty, falling-apart old house rimmed with dirt. The unspoken message: this is all you deserve, lady.
But Carole is stroppy, and insists on her dignity throughout the ordeal, to the point where two of the three minders come to like and respect her. In a gorgeous moment of comedy, the nosy old trout next door upbraids Carole over the back fence for the "disgusting" comings and goings of so many men - whereupon the hardest-bitten of the cops (Paul Gittens) informs her that the youngest man is Carole's husband, and he and the other man are a gay couple. Gittens' portrayal of the craggy old-style officer nearly steals the show at times, whereas you frequently get the pip with the senior officer, played by Peter Elliott, who is blatantly using Carole and her children as a pawn.
The tension builds nicely as the police investigation drags on for weeks, causing the atmospherics of the claustrophobic old house to grow nearly unbearable, especially given the predatory behaviour of one of the captor cops toward Carole.
Not to spoil the ending for those who have recorded Safe House for later, but it's a knuckle-whitener, the more so for being fact-based. Another bonus, of a sort, is a blast of the kind of casually sexist dialogue we have (hopefully) grown out of long since.
A further consuming watch was UKTV's superb Page Eight on Saturday, a political thriller in the grand tradition of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Its immediate attraction was that it starred Bill Nighy, who, despite being senior and skinny and mumbling a lot, is lusted after by almost every woman this reviewer knows.
Here he plays Johnny Worricker, an introverted and soul-weary senior intelligence analyst who discovers that the prime minister - a gloriously creepy and sinister Ralph Fiennes - has colluded with the United States in the ill-treatment of terrorist suspect detainees. Worricker's quiet determination to prevent this from being covered up is the backbone of the story. Written by playwright David Hare, the movie-length story unfolds in slow, subtle exchanges between the various players, but in such a skilful way that you get just as much information from what is carefully not said, and in the tense pauses and moments of awkwardness.
At its heart, the story is cynical and polemical, but given what we know about politics at this level, and in this area, it's also hideously plausible.
The movie is exquisitely stylish to look at and our hero's love interest is the unsuitably young but very appealing Rachel Weisz. Best of all, Hare is writing two more movies starring Nighy as Worricker - and why wouldn't he?
One To Watch
Strike Back, Prime, 9.35pm
It may be a poor person's Spooks, but this series packs in addictively paced quantities of anti-terrorist adventure. Richard Armitage stars as one of an elite force tracking a wily Pakistani plotter.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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