UK TV review: McMafia Season 1
James R | On 06, Feb 2018
“I’m a banker, not a gangster.” That’s Alex Godman (James Norton) in McMafia, BBC One’s slick financial-crime drama. It tells of the descent of Alex from one role into another, as the lines between business and breaking the law become blurred in today’s shady, wealth-driven world. Based on Misha Glenny’s non-fiction book from 2008, the fictional show does an impressive job of conveying factual observations with crystal clarity, communicating ideas, insights and complex information without descending into exposition dumps or dictionary definitions.
Co-created by Hossein Amini (Wings of the Dove) and James Watkins (The Woman in Black, Eden Lake), the series throws us right into the world of organised crime, through the eyes of Alex, the son of a Russian family who is working hard to keep his hands clean. That becomes increasingly hard, though, when his hedge fund that he manages comes under fire. Rumours of dodgy dealings leave him unable to find any new clients, and ends up turning to someone recommended by his larger-than-life uncle Boris (David Dencik): the Israeli shipping tycoon Semiyon Kleiman (David Strathairn). Semiyon’s money, though, is far from clean – and the path is forged for Alex’s gradual journey into (ahem) uncharted accounting.
A rich man being caught up in the crimes of other rich men? McMafia’s biggest problem is that it’s hard to find sympathy for Alex’s transformation. It doesn’t help that Matthew Rhys is as bland as they come – an intentional choice that positions Alex as a blank slate ripe for becoming tainted, but also leaves us with little compassion or interest in him as a character. Throughout, the question lingers as to why Alex is doing what he is: at first, it’s to protect his family, attempting to redeem the reputation of his surname and his father’s legacy. But how much is it clan loyalty and how much is it him merely enjoying the rush of newfound power? Is he merely the latest produce of an English public school system that readies him for such amoral, dubious deeds?
Season 1 of McMafia never really finds an answer, which frustrates as much as it intrigues. Fortunately, Alex is surrounded by some wonderfully colourful supporting characters, from Aleksey Serebryakov’s despressed dad, Dimitri, an exile from his motherland, to his social mother, Okshana, played with a tragically steely fidelity by Maria Shukshina. And, on the other side of the fence, there’s Rebecca (Juliet Rylance), Alex’s British girlfriend, who is unhappy with who Alex is beginning to become.
Their relationship, which is slowly eroded by his increasingly suspicious behaviour, is the beating heart of the show – but that beating heart emerges as a very slow pulse, as the series drips each plot twist at a glacial pace. The other major relationship is the rivalry between Godman and Vadim Kalyagin (Merab Ninidze), the crime boss who is the enemy of Godman’s family. As those things inevitably intertwine and collide, her safety is put at risk, Alex’s security has to be upgraded, and Ninidze increasingly sinks his teeth into his nasty villain – building to a The Third Man-esque chase that marks a wonderfully exciting climax.
Those moments are fairly few and far between, though, as we’re treated to a cycle of power play after power play. By the halfway mark, with no sign of the human consequences of all this nefarious dealing – human trafficking and drugs are among the trades going on – there’s no sense of why it’s so bad. Instead, Watkins does a grand job of trotting the globe with glamour and style more associated with James Bond – a tone emphasised by the excellent theme tune from Tom Hodge and Frank Kirmann, which undergoes seemingly endless permutations and orchestrations, from the 007-esque brass and spectacle of Hollywoodised wealth to a fragile single voice lamenting a tragic loss.
That’s, perhaps, the point of McMafia: there aren’t really heroes and villains here, because they’re all bad people. David Strathairn, the MVP of an excellent cast, gets that, and plays his cunning, political magnate accordingly – the opposite to Rhys, who never really gives us a sign of Alex’s inner development, even as he mounts his own machinations. “I don’t think he knows himself,” muses Rebecca at one point, and there’s something in that, it just doesn’t always translate into an engaging protagonist.
Nonetheless, McMafia works as a portrait of the 21st century mafia, charting the change from the old crime syndicates represented by Vadim – emotional, revenge-driven and violent – and the new generation of kingping, represented by Alex – cool, calculated and efficient. It’s no coincidence, then, that the best thing in the show is perhaps its opening credits, which take the graphs, maps, attacks and bribes of Glenny’s original text and use them to assemble a convincing, realistic and remarkably accessible jigsaw puzzle of modern crime. If only the rest of the show consistently met that high bar.
McMafia is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription. It is also available on BritBox as part of an £5.99 monthly subscription. It is also available on BBC iPlayer until April 2021.