Saturday, January 6, 2007

Prime Suspect 2

dir. John Strickland

Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison ponders Jane Doe or Yorick

January 2-4, 2007 - DVD

Prime Suspect 2
, while being the second season in what appears to be a television show, is actually the second installment of a serialized mini-series…. or something. Proving herself a top-notch detective to a doubting bunch of man-cops (no, they don’t call each other “bobbies,” even though it’s England) in Prime Suspect 1, DCI Jane Tennison is now a respected leader of her unit, and thus, though not at the cause of and having nothing to do with, she is a full character, full in a spilling-over, exhausting full, and I credit Helen Mirren.

A young girl’s body is unearthed in the backyard of a home in an African-Caribbean neighborhood in London. Very quickly, racial tensions boil to the surface. It also becomes rather clear that white/black racism in England is a very different story than that in the United States. In England it is a racism borne less of slavery (though that certainly existed), and more of immigration. Meanwhile, Jane Tennison, in the aftermath of a heated Star Trek 2 “fake-out” re-introduction to her character, has a tryst with Sergeant Robert Oswalde, an equally ambitious black detective. As Tennison dashes off to take charge of the unidentified girl case, her tryst ends in a rash of name-calling.

What follows is a very, very complicated, difficult, seemingly dead-end murder mystery, where the victim is a skeleton that has been buried for a couple years now. The case is riveting and engrossing, of course, but secondary to just marveling at Helen Mirren’s performance. It is very rare you see a character that is so tough and so vulnerable in the same moment, but not necessarily like Indiana Jones. Unlike Indiana Jones, she is not permitted to crack a whip to solve her problems. She cannot fight back (as demonstrated in a scene where she is assaulted by a grieving mother). She must demonstrate patience, and use her vulnerability to toughen the skin As a reward for this patience and diligence, much like in Prime Suspect 1, she is eventually rewarded with an orgy of evidence. To be fair, she worked through sleepless night, but nonetheless, it is a little much when the walls come tumbling down. A deluge, the damn bursts open in the second half to unreasonable proportions, again much like Prime Suspect 1. Yet, the interesting thing about Prime Suspect 2 is that the story does not stop there. It continues.

Sgt. Oswalde is brought on the case to assuage difficulties Tennison’s troops are having with the African-Caribbean community. Tennison and he butt heads, due to personal and ethical differences, but they both push forward and again grow close. Oswalde has a big break in the case and Tennison, his superior, instructs him to be patient. In the series’ most impressive moments, Oswalde disobeys and goes rather mad. All the while, Tennison is in a hospital taking a confession from a dying man. Oswalde’s frenzy gets uglier and uglier and results in a death. We watch Oswalde go berserk and these images linger through every scene that follows. The remarkable thing about Mirren’s performance from this point on is how Tennison continues to work with Oswalde with the knowledge of an uncalled for outburst, and because she did not witness it, like we did, she is able to play the scenes in her typically cool demeanor. She is as tender to Oswalde as ever, despite the personal affront. An unease is sure to wash over the viewer as she seemingly turns a blind eye to his actions. Tennison did not observe this outburst, and therefore Mirren plays the part as though she cannot exactly understand what happened. The drama of their relationship unfolding in the final hour or so of Prime Suspect 2 is, to put it bluntly, complicated.

Colin Salmon, a newcomer to screen acting at the time, was faced with some task going toe-to-toe with the already showered with awards from Prime Suspect 1 Helen Mirren, and he truly does hold his own. And yet, Mirren is the reason to continue watching the show. It is easy to call it a gritty show, but nitty-gritty is better. It’s the sort of program that if you checked under the hood, it has dirty fingernails, bad teeth, a hairy back and probably a few STD’s. Everything is played like the most important event in the history of mankind is occurring, and every once in a while, narrative contrivances aside, that is true.

Finally, there is a character, Nola Cameron, who immediately assumes and is certain the skeleton belongs to her missing daughter. It turns out to not be her daughter, and thus, Nola Cameron disappears from the story. With the deluge of aforementioned narrative contrivances and loose ends tied and tied, could writer Allan Cubitt not work her back in? Let’s say I’m looking forward to Prime Suspect creator and Series 1 writer, Lynda La Plante’s return to the typewriter in Prime Suspect 3.

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