First look UK TV review: Under the Banner of Heaven
Questions of faith8
James R | On 31, Jul 2022
“Nothing can stop the political uprising of the Kingdom of God.” That’s the kind of sentence you can expect to hear in Under the Banner of Heaven, Disney+’s grim new drama, fresh from Hulu. Equally unstoppable is the rise of true crime, with this seven-part series joining the growing number of small screen sagas based on grisly real events. But the title gives you a clue as to its real concern, as what begins as a dark detective mystery deepens into an inspection of fundamental truths and subjective beliefs.
Based on the book by Jon Krakauer, the series introduces us to Detective Jim Pyre (Andrew Garfield), an elder in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Soft-spoken but thick-skinned, he’s a gentle force for good in ever-darkening times. About to make things even darker is the murder of Brenda (Daisy Edgar-Jones), a devout young Mormon, and her baby. The news of her death interrupts Jim while playing with his daughter, and that juxtaposition is no coincidence – with the prime suspect being Brenda’s disturbingly intense husband, Allen (the always-excellent Billy Howle), this is a saga about how the nicest of surfaces can conceal nastiness beneath.
Garfield is fantastic as he builds on his typically earnest screen presence to essay a crumbling sense of certainty – his voice and facial features quietly break as he finds the tenets of his moral morality and identity upended by the idea that a Mormon might not only have committed the brutal deed but also have believed they were justified in doing it.
Seeing him get the chance to dig into a character over seven-is hours is reason enough to tune in, but Under the Banner of Heaven also managed to avoid the pitfall of prioritising the detective over the victim. Creator Dustin Lance Black delves into the past through a string of flashbacks that give us a strong sense of perspective. The focus on Mormon history is thematically resonant but doesn’t always convince or help with pacing. Stronger are the flashbacks that follow Brenda, as Edgar-Jones brings charisma to the part of a young woman who dreams not of being a devout wife and mother but of presenting the news on TV.
Brenda finds herself marring into the Lafferty family, a male-heavy clan who are effectively celebrities in the Mormon world – including forthright father Ammon (Christopher Heyerdahl) and loyal brothers Dan (Wyatt Russell) and Ron (Sam Worthington). All three are uniformly committed to their roles, with Worthington in particular delivering a wonderfully nuanced turn. What becomes immediately clear is how they take against the notion of a woman who doesn’t want to merely be obedient to the men around her, and over time the series charts how such fundamentalist attitudes in an isolationist bubble can foster even more extreme ideas, including anti-state sentiment and an aversion to tax laws.
This group of men couldn’t be more of a contrast to Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham), the warm yet dogged sidekick to Jim who, as a Native American, is an outsider to the reclusive community they’re investigating twice over. But Garfield is the key to holding the ensemble together, and he brings an increasingly heavy heart to a drama that, amid the bearded twists and marital tensions, brings a relatively rare seriousness and depth to matters of faith. What can lead an individual to choose and think things that seem so at odds with their beliefs? And what can lead a believer to doubt the faith that they’ve been raised to follow without question? Atmospheric and brooding, it’s a thoughtful investigation into the intersection of religious values and personal interpretation.