20 October, 2009

What the Papers Say: "Murderland"

Nancy Banks Smith, The Guardian

"There was something of Alice in Wonderland about Carrie in Murderland (ITV1), a psychological chiller by David Pirie. Carrie (Bel Powley) finds her mother murdered, spilled on the kitchen floor like ketchup in a sexy, scarlet, sequinned dress. Fifteen years later, unable to rest until she solves the murder, she walks away from her own wedding, abandoning her wedding dress, a virginal shift, like a pool of milk. It feels like a dream.

Wide-eyed Carrie (a quite extraordinary performance if, perhaps, better-spoken than you might expect from a child on a sink estate) is inquisitive, persistent and eager to help DI Hain (Robbie Coltrane) catch the killer. Very much like Alice who, finding herself in a hole, tries to make sense of it all by closely interrogating every creature she meets, most of them mad and at least one of them murderous.

The night of her mother's murder is an exercise in tension. Everything seems ominous to her. The man trying to take her photograph, the drunk at the bus stop, a strange pair of trainers she sees on the stair, the glimpses of sado-masochist behaviour, drink and drugs. Only dishevelled DI Hain feels friendly and somehow familiar in this frightening world. Her mother's funeral is bleak to the point of comedy, with prostitutes on one side and police on the other, until Hain arrives radiating human warmth like a storage heater.

But even his own colleagues – particularly his own colleagues – do not like him. As Carrie squirrels among press cuttings and clues, they coalesce into a sudden revelation and an accusation: "You knew her! It was you!"

Each episode will show the same events from different perspectives. This week, the child. Next, the detective. Finally, the murdered woman."


Andrew Billen, The Times

"The title of the writer David Pirie's new thriller, the one marking Robbie Coltrane's return to ITV, should have given its makers a clue about which way to go with it - if, that is, they wanted to avoid it becoming a Coltrane-fest. “Murderland”, it was explained on Murderland, is the zone a bereaved child enters after a murder: he or she becomes “crime obsessive”. One could see the possibilities, dramatically speaking, for Carrie, the 13-year-old who discovers her prostitute mother killed and catches a fleeting glimpse of her killer. She might distrust the adults trying to help her, devise deranged theories about who did it, or want to kill someone herself.

Yet Bel Powley, the 17-year-old playing Carrie, did not convince us that she had truly entered this new territory. If she was crime obsessive, she was so in a rather gauche Nancy Drew way. Maybe this is how we were meant to read her Saturday stage-school performance. For the structure of the three-part drama demands us to believe that Carrie has repressed the unsolved murder for 15 years.

We meet her on the eve of her posh wedding, by which time Carrie has grown up into Carol and Powley morphed into Amanda Hale, who, at least, shares her cut-glass vowels (so different from her prozzy mother's). On her big day she flees her country hotel, running through a field like Debbie Reynolds on The Debbie Reynolds Show, and abandons her Vera Wang wedding dress beneath a tree. “The memories won't stop but if I look hard enough they'll tell me what really happened to her,” she voice-overs. At this point Murderland succumbed to a severe case of the flashbacks. Enter, at last, Coltrane.

As the dodgy, boozy DI Douglas Hain, the Scotsman tries only moderately hard not to recreate his performance as Fitz in Cracker and who cares if he fails? He was still the most interesting figure in the piece even if he had only a little to do in episode one, which was told from Carrie-Carol's perspective. Whenever he did have something to do, he did it compellingly, even if it was just cadging a sweet off Carrie. His two-line speech denying her suggestion that he could not have children - “Lost a wee boy. Lived a few hours” - was the best moment in a generally unabsorbing hour."


Brian Viner, The Independent

"As the alarmingly alliterative hairy Hogwarts handyman, Hagrid, Robbie Coltrane did plenty of acting with children, but none of them, and certainly not the wand-wooden Daniel Radcliffe, could ever have held even an enchanted candle to young Bel Powley. She played opposite Coltrane in the opening episode of Murderland, as Carrie, the daughter of a murdered prostitute, and she was terrific.

This was just as well, because it was a challenging part that in the hands of a less accomplished young actress could have been, pardon the word, slaughtered. Carrie's response to the violent death of her mother was to become obsessed with the crime, inhabiting a psychiatric state apparently known as "murderland". David Pirie's clever script presents each of the three episodes from the perspective of a different character, and Carrie was the first, still haunted as an adult (played by Amanda Hale) by a crime that after 15 years remains unsolved.

The detective who failed to solve it is played by Coltrane, who continues to be stalked by the letter aitch, for here he is called Hain, and he has a heck of a hinterland. The episode, toing and fro-ing between 2009 and 1994, ended with young Carrie, having at first invested all her trust in Hain, deciding that he might actually be the killer. Certainly, there is more to him than meets the eye, albeit that what does meet the eye pretty much fills the screen. And that's not just a cheap gag about Coltrane's vastness; it is always difficult to take your eyes off him. Indeed, I can't think of anyone who entered the nation's consciousness as a funny man yet has stepped so convincingly into serious drama. It's a common-enough career pattern – the world is full of clowns who want to play Hamlet – but Coltrane, on British television at any rate, embodies it biggest and best.

It is also to his credit that Hain, though tramping much the same territory as Coltrane did in Jimmy McGovern's brilliant Cracker, does not evoke his character in Cracker, the brooding psychologist Fitz, too distractingly. He looks and sounds like Fitz, and he's similarly a maverick with no respect for correct procedure, but we don't know yet whether he's one of the good guys. Not that any good guys have yet emerged. I don't often feel the need to stand up for my gender, but I can't recall a drama in which just about every male character was a study in creepiness."

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