Servant review: Enjoyably uneasy viewing
Ivan Radford | On 28, Nov 2019
When is an M Night Shyamalan story not an M Night Shyamalan story? Apple TV+ gives us the answer this week with Servant, a new psychological thriller that wastes no time in dishing up its big, juicy reveal.
It’s a curious quirk of storytelling that goes against what we’ve come to expect from the director and writer of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. But this isn’t a Shyamalan script: in a rare move for the helmer, Shyamalan is only directing a tale that’s written by Tony Basgallop, who also gave us Hotel Babylon. In an even rarer move, it’s not a Shyamalan film: it’s a TV series, and the rules of the game are different. Serving the twist up-front, rather than in the final act, it becomes a question of how long the show can then keep the suspense going, dangling resolutions and answers to questions that linger in the menacing air.
The questions certainly come thick and fast. The opening episode introduces us to Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and Sean (Toby Kebbell), a wealthy married couple who are currently dealing with the loss of their baby son, Jericho. To cope, Dorothy has got a reborn doll, a plastic toy figure to stand in for him. And, by the time the 30-minute opening episode is up, things have only gotten eerier.
That stems primarily from Dorothy’s decision to hire a nanny to look after Jericho, something that Sean plays along with but is far from happy about. The show relies heavily upon the cast to sell the situation, both as a serious study of a couple processing grief and as a plausible scenario to allow for paranormal activity to unravel.
They don’t disappoint: Lauren Ambrose is intense and awkward as the deluded Dorothy, who acts at all times as though Jericho is entirely alive and well. She’s as prickly and cool with Sean as she is driven and calm in her professional routine – an effective counterpoint to Rupert Grint, who is clearly enjoying playing against type as her brash brother, Julian, who keeps rocking up at their house for booze and fine cuisine. Between them, Toby Kebbell is impressively understated as Sean, sinking his teeth into the kind of meaty role the underrated actor is rarely given. He’s alienated, resentful, melancholic and in mourning, equally sceptical and supportive of his partner – and, as weird things start to happen, he, rather than Dorothy, is the one who has to question whether he’s imagining things.
The show is stolen, though, by Nell Tiger Free (Myrcella Baratheon from Game of Thrones) as Leanne. Free is fantastically unsettling, playing the nanny as cooing and caring for the young baby, conservatively religious, and creepily impossible to read. Does she know more about what’s going on than she appears to? Just how sincere is her devotion to Jericho? And is she behaving differently towards Julian because she’s growing in confidence or for other reasons entirely?
Shyamalan films his chamber piece with maximum claustrophobia and minimum breathing space on screen; he draws us in close to their domestic life, so close that we’re forced to take an unusual perspective on their behaviour. The glossy surfaces of their affluent abode – set-dressed with Instagram-worthy attention to detail – are contrasted by the almost graphic depictions of food being prepared by culinary expert Sean. Is there a reason why he strips eels with such wriggling relish? Or why it disturbs Leanne so much? And will the Killing List-like wicker figurines actually add up to anything?
Servant does deliver answers on those questions, but also resolutely remains ambiguous enough to keep you squirming. What begins as a study of desperate measures taken in one scenario evolves into equally desperate measures taken in another – dark flashbacks to what happened to Jericho and glimpses of Leanne’s own journey start to answer how exactly Dorothy has ended up seeing what she does. But the constant certainty throughout is the fact that – despite outwardly perfect lives that could encourage idolisation from anyone – Dorothy and Sean remain unable to communicate about what they’re going through. That dysfunctional gap between them is key to the series’ ability to juggle perspectives and experiences, not to mention the way that they each have their own lies to explain to other people about what’s going on.
Shyamalan’s stylish storytelling doesn’t disappoint, ensuring that with each faintly ridiculous twist or beastly encounter, you don’t lose the urge to keep watching – thanks to both the quick 30-minute runtimes and the creepy, violin-filled score. And while some moments of dialogue descend into unsubtle flourishes, the atmosphere is enjoyably uneasy until the end credits, leaving you gasping at stairwells, flinching at religious extremists and wondering at all times whether this couple actually deserve some kind of redemption or second chance. Leanne isn’t the person to decide that, but she’s the one who leads us into a surprising finale, which promises a second season that’s entirely different but no less unnerving.
Servant is available on Apple TV+, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription, with a seven-day free trial. For more information on Apple TV+ and how to get it, click here.