by Allan Fish
(UK 2013 187m) DVD1/2
Not that sort of place
p Derrin Schlesinger, Peter Carlton d Sean Durkin w Tony Grisoni ph Mátyás Erdély ed Daniel Greenway art Tom Bowyer
Sean Harris (Stephen Morton), Rory Kinnear (David Whitehead), Shirley Henderson (Louise Salter), Eddie Marsan (Andrew Salter), Anatol Yusef (Paul Gould), Joe Dempsie (Chris Cooper), Kaya Scodelario (Ann Salter), Al Weaver (Anthony),
Broadchurch and Southcliffe; the two series that will likely be held up as the best British TV drama had to offer in 2013. Both titles refer to sleepy close-knit communities. Both communities suffer tragedy and have to come to terms with it. Broadchurch was equal parts whodunit and whydunit and a post mortem on the healing process. It’s a very fine drama in its own right, but Southcliffe seems to me the greater achievement, perhaps because it leaves so much unanswered.
It was in 1987 that Michael Ryan went round the sleepy town of Hungerford with a gun and shot sixteen people, including his mother, before turning the gun on himself. Southcliffe is partially based on those events, though set very much in the present day. The killer here is Stephen Morton, an ex-serviceman mockingly called ‘The Commander’ by locals and getting what money he can by doing odd-jobs for people who generally pay him a pittance. In addition he has a bedridden old mother who he takes care of single-handedly, refusing care worker Claire Salter’s requests to get the DLA he’s entitled to.
Unlike Broadchurch, Southcliffe’s narrative unfolds in scattershot fashion. Time is fluid, characters moving back and forward as simply as if they just dreamt it. It’s an unsettling experience, but one which, despite a little artiness, actually works extremely well. The audience never has closure. We don’t just see the atrocities happen and know that we will now just see the aftermath. Often we see the aftermath before the events, and each return to that fateful day takes us to the brink of some other poor victim’s horror. We don’t see any victim die, but we see and hear the gunshot that kills them, so that when the action cuts away it’s as if we were fading to black like the unfortunates who, in many cases, were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Grisoni uses the character of Whitehead, the reporter, as the audience’s proxy inquisitor, asking the usual questions; ‘why did it happen?’, ‘how can you not have seen the signs?’, before frustration gives way to a ‘J’Accuse’ rant down the local. We watch as those left behind – often those one could perhaps more understand Morton shooting, rather than their loved ones – are driven to opposite extremes. A bereft father is left to mourn the loss of the sunshine in his life when discussing his dead teenage daughter, while her mother breaks down completely in a way that may seem on the surface rather peculiar, but which emphasises the uncontrollable nature of grief.
We’ve come to expect great things from Grisoni, whose work on Red Riding and The Unloved proved he was so much happier working for this more intimate medium, yet it’s also intensely cinematic in its focus and technique. The praise heaped on Sean Durkin after Martha Marcy May Marlene was, to these eyes, a little premature. His work here and his seamless transition to the marshes of Kent that once inspired Dickens, is exemplary. It’s a harrowing but not judgemental tale and the performances all carry the same conviction. In most other dramas, Shirley Henderson’s turn as the grieving mother would be talked of for awards; indeed one cannot remember her ever being better. Eddie Marsan is his usual flawless self that we have come to expect. There are many fine bits of work in support, too many to list here and we have to deal with the two principals. Sean Harris, by his own admission, is drawn to those characters shunned by society and once again shows himself to be one of Britain’s finest screen character actors, showing both the inhumanity of the act and the humanity of the desperate man. And finally there’s Rory Kinnear, who, at several moments, borders on the miraculous. For them alone, it’s worth preserving.