Carey Mulligan is one of those actors who are so good it’s easy to forget they’re acting at all. From Inside Llewyn Davis to An Education, she’s as chameleonic as they come, but she’s even more unrecognisable than usual in Collateral, BBC Two and Netflix’s new drama.
The four-part thriller, written by David Hare, sees her play Kip Glaspie, a Detective Inspector who’s not like most TV detectives. She doesn’t have a drinking problem, a particularly dramatic private life, or other demons to battle (she’s a former champion pole vaulter, but nobody goes on about it): she’s just a hard-working cop good at her job. And her determination to do the right thing, to unearth the truth, makes her a winning hero in what emerges as a dark portrait of modern Britain.
If that sounds overly simple, don’t be deceived: Hare’s drama weaves a complicated portrait of the UK, a country where deaths can be ignored, people-smuggling goes overlooked, and assassinations can be swept behind closed doors. In just four hours, Collateral manages to fit in everything from MI5 and multiple killings to a timely story of abuse, a dissection of the tensions between the church and homosexuality and an examination of the painful bureaucracy and cruel prejudices of the immigration system.
It begins, as the best stories often do, with pizza. But a seemingly innocent takeaway descends into violence when a delivery man is shot dead, prompting Kip to investigate. The pizza boy? Abdullah Asif (Sam Otto), whose sisters Fatima and Mona Asif are tangled in the thorny web of UK residency issues, something that makes it harder to access and question them – not that secret service agent Sam (a wonderfully loathsome John Heffernan) has any complaints about that.
Before we can start to wonder what exactly is afoot, we’re whisked away to Westminster, where Shadow Transport Secretary David Mars (John Simm) is fired up over the killing and rants about the need to stop Britain being such a “nasty little country” – much to the displeasure of the Labour Party leader, who’s trying to get the shadow cabinet back into power.
John Simm’s excellent, as ever, and has a fine line in righteous fury. His presence brings to mind the small-screen masterpiece that is State of Play, but if Hare’s writing lacks that show’s tightly plotted cohesion, it makes up for it with the sheer intricacy of its web. Mars, for example, is navigating a messy relationship with his ex-wife, Karen (Billie Piper, doing brilliant work with not a lot), who’s quietly imploding. At the same time, there’s room for the fabulous Nicola Walker to play Jane, a priest who is trying to choose between her vocation and her romance with Korean girlfriend Ling (Kae Alexander), who just so happens to be the sole witness to the murder.
It’s a sea of contrivances, but the cast are excellent enough to sell the most convenient of twists and connections, while Hare’s script ensures that there’s a logic behind it all, no matter how unclear and uneven it may seem; over four hours, coincidences are revealed to be the consequences (both direct and indirect) of individual and systemic compromises, and fates are decided by complications of distant conspiracies. It’s not, needless to say, an action-packed thriller, and director SJ Clarkson (whose CV includes Jessica Jones, Dexter and HBO’s much-anticipated Game of Thrones prequel) is superb at building suspense from scenes that are primarily driven by people having in-depth, intelligent conversations.
At the heart of it all is Mulligan, who is subtly brilliant as Kip, clearly enjoying having the chance to play a lead role – a hero who’s smart, sarcastic, funny and professional all at once. She sets a standard that everyone else meets, which, combined with Hare’s generous screenplay, means that even people like the pizza shop owner have their personal problems explored, but also leaves you wanting more screen-time for everyone. And yet, if it could benefit from another episode or two, there’s something apt in the way that Collateral sweeps over, past and through its impeccable, convincing ensemble. From troubled soldiers to political blackmail, everyone in this machine is just incidental damage – not of a killing, or a pizza, but of the country itself. It might not be a shocking revelation in 2018, but like its well-earned showcase for Carey Mulligan, it’s sometimes good to have a reminder.
Collateral is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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