Servant review: Enjoyably uneasy viewing from M. Night Shyamalan
Ivan Radford | On 28, Nov 2019Reading time: 4 mins
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 the one 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 then 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 reaons 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?
There’s no guarantee Servant will actually deliver answers for any of these questions, but from the opening three episodes, it’s apparent that the show is prepared to serve up enough creepy violins to fill in the gaps until it does. The atmosphere is enjoyably uneasy, for all its unsubtle writing, and the cast are committed to wherever the Psychoville-esque plot will take them. Even if the script doesn’t end up living up to the opening twist, Shyamalan’s stylish storytelling doesn’t disappoint, ensuring that with each faintly ridiculous twist, you don’t lose the urge to keep watching.
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.