Hot on the heels of her turn in The Saboteurs, the excellent Anna Friel teams up with The Bridge creator Hans Rosenfeldt for another slice of Nordic noir. The twist this time? It all takes place in London.
She plays Marcella (pronounced “Mar-CH-ella”), a detective who left her job years ago to have a second child, but finds herself drawn back to the force when a plastic bag-wielding serial killer from her past appears to have returned. At the same time, her husband, Jason (Nicholas Pinnock), has decided to break up with her for another woman.
Naturally, she throws herself into the new/reopened case with all the reckless, obsessive qualities you could want from a modern police officer. By day, she follows an old suspect she could never prove was guilty. By night, she follows her husband. She basically spends her life following people around the capital looking angry.
On the surface, it sounds cliched – watch out for the shot the morning after some drunken arguing and impromptu home renovation, in which she unsubtly puts the pieces of a family portrait back together – but the cast knock the occasional silliness clean out of the park, and Rosenfeldt’s script weaves a far more tangled tale than you might expect. That’s partly thanks to the introduction of a condition known as “dissociative fugue”, which essentially means Marcella gets very angry and wakes up hours later unaware of what she’s done. Will our heroine’s occasional Hulk Smashes set her up as the killer all along? Marcella teases us with that possibility throughout, as it settles into a compelling rhythm, each new victim punctuating her ongoing race to pull a lot of threads together.
The plot device is certainly milked for maximum tension, as Marcella repeatedly wakes up in disturbing, dangerous or downright daft situations, leaving us – and her – to piece together what on earth has happened. That particularly pays off in one gripping sequence during the finale, as Rosenfeldt manages to maintain tension, and that ambiguity, all the way to the end of the season. That’s a crucial achievement for Marcella to work as a series, because the story’s many tangled knots frequently stray into unbelievable territory – what it doesn’t do is ever settle into anything that’s less than enjoyably over-the-top.
And what of those threads? Well, they include a dodgy property developer’s matriarch, Sylvie (Sinead Cusack), trying to avoid council regulations, which feels nicely topical, and her family empire, including stepson Henry (Harry Lloyd) and murdered daughter Grace Gibson (Maeve Dermody), whose death kicks off the show’s whole mystery. There’s also the infidelity of Jason (who’s the developer’s lawyer, by the way), and the question of whether he and Marcella will ever reunite, plus Marcella’s own blossoming relationship with DI Tim Williamson (Jamie Bamber). Somewhere in there, we also have a webcam girl, a suspect from the original 2005 killings who is spotted on CCTV near a current crime scene, corpses being moved, constant threats of blackmail, and a talent show in which Marcella’s son does some magic tricks.
It’s a lot of stuff to juggle, and Friel does so brilliantly; for every scene in which she annoys her chief (Ray Panthaki) with her reckless ways, there’s a moment in which she sells the emotional exhaustion of a woman trying to keep a family going in the wake of a personal tragedy. That heartfelt weight helps to carry the cheesier bursts of dialogue – and the series knows it.
“She’s a better detective than me,” insists Nina Sosanya’s DCI Laura Porter (one of the few supportive coppers in sight), early on. “Give her a long enough leash and you’ll find out.”
Friel’s chemistry with Ian Puleston-Davies as her favoured suspect, Peter Cullen, is wonderfully acerbic – the opposite of her more tender aggressiveness with Pinnock’s superb Jason, or the slick but petulant stylings of Lloyd’s Henry, who has a close friendship with Matthew (boyfriend to another suspect, Yann – there really are an endless number of possible culprits). Throw all those impressive supporting turns and red herrings together with graphic bursts of people suffocating with bags over their heads and you have yourself an effective balance of human drama and nasty homicide that really does make for an entertainingly grisly crime drama – the darkness of Nordic noir does fit neatly with the rainy streets of London after all.
Does everything make sense in the end? Not really. Would you believe that anyone would actually keep employing Marcella, as her behaviour becomes more and more erratic? Probably not. But would you watch a second season? Absolutely.
Marcella: Season 1 is available for free on ITV Hub until 19th April 2018. It is also available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription.
Where can I watch Marcella: Season 1 on pay-per-view VOD?