It’s taken ITV several attempts, but its seasonal adaptations of Maigret have finally found themselves – fittingly, in a tale called Maigret in Montmartre.
Location was one of the initial obstacles for the channel’s take on Georges Simenon’s detective, as it struggled to recreate the world of period Paris convincingly – the fact that some were speaking English in an English accent and others were speaking French in an over-the-top voice didn’t help much. But Maigret has gotten better at backgrounds as it has gone on, with directors Sarah Harding and Jon East injecting events with a real sense of style and colour. Here, Thaddeus O’Sullivan (veteran of Silent Witness and Call the Midwife) elevates it yet further, bringing to life the streets of 1950s France with a gorgeously dark atmosphere; all silhouettes and dim lights, the seediness seeps into every part of the plot, which revolves around a nightclub in the capital’s backstreets.
Our primary murder victim is Arlette, a beguiling showgirl who claims she has overheard two men discussing the murder of a Countess. Inevitably, she turns up dead – but when a Countess turns up murdered too, Maigret finds himself trying to link both bodies together. It’s a relatively predictable, formulaic affair, something that’s perhaps inevitable, given the restrictions of Simenon’s source material. But what Stewart Harcourt’s script manages to do is give enough depth and conviction to the material to make it the most compelling Maigret yet.
Arlette’s death, unforeseen by Maigret after her initial questioning, fuels a guilt that drives the detective to solve the mystery – continuing a trend for a more personal connection to each case that gives Atkinson something to sink his teeth into. The murky world into which our plot sinks also provides a nice contrast to the morally upright existence of the detective, with his ever-faithful wife (Lucy Cohu) – their marriage, one of the most consistently strong parts of ITV’s series, is now becoming fractured by the amount of time his policing takes up.
But it’s Maigret on the job that proves this drama’s secret weapon: Atkinson has taken some time to settle into the role, with Maigret’s hushed, cerebral presence leaving you waiting for the former Mr. Bean to pull a funny facial expression. But the writing, too, has taken its time to settle into Atkinson’s performance, and here, they finally click: Atkinson’s pipe-smoking is as thoughtful as ever, but he gets dialogue to relish too, with Harcourt’s script peppering his exchanges with sassy replies and sharp remarks. Here, you finally feel, is the full Maigret on display. That, unfortunately, highlights the relatively generic nature of the rest of his colleagues, who struggle to stand out from each other. But if that’s the price to pay for Maigret to find itself, it’s worth it. With its trilby hats, solid plotting and moody trench coats anchored by an increasingly confident Atkinson, Maigret is evolving into an accomplished, undemanding detective drama that goes down easily after a large Christmas dinner.