UK TV review: The Pembrokeshire Murders
James R | On 17, Jan 2021
“Where’s your hard evidence, Steve?” “It’s waiting for us to find, ma’am.” That’s Detective Superintendent Steve Wilkins (Luke Evans) after he reopens two unsolved double murders from the 1980s. Looming over the Dyfed Powys police force for years, the cases weren’t solved until two decades after the fact, thanks to scientific breakthroughs and the dogged determination of Wilkins and his team. Going into this ITV drama knowing that might sound like a major tension sapper, but the three-parter is a gripping, emotional watch.
A large part of that comes from Luke Evans, who brings an intensity and humanity to the role of Wilkins. From The Alienist and the Fast & Furious franchise to Beauty and the Beast, he’s a hugely charismatic screen presence, capable of singing, dancing or shooting his way through the biggest blockbusters. Here, though, he delivers a study in stillness, as his lonely cop throws himself into his work and, perhaps a little too late, remembers that he needs to bond with his son too.
His target is John Cooper, who had an alibi from his wife and a friendly connection with the junior officer on the original case to stop him from being caught. Instead arrested for a string of robberies in the 1980s and 1990s, Wilkins spies the connection between him and the murders as Cooper is about to be released on parole. Keith Allen is deliberately understated in the role, but constantly communicates a chilling lack of compassion and humanity, not thinking twice about throwing his own son into the frame if it helps him escape suspicion.
While both actors are at the top of their games, The Pembrokeshire Murders succeeds because it isn’t really about either of them – director Marc Evans (Manhunt) and screenwriter Nick Stevens (In Plain Sight) smartly ensure that there’s a sensitive balance to their retelling of events, giving no glory or attention to Cooper and affording lots of screentime to Wilkins’ colleagues. They include the stoic DI Ella Richards (The End of the F***ing World’s Alexandria Riley) and the calm DS Rambo (Casualty’s excellent Charles Dale), who make a formidable interviewing team. There’s also time for Caroline Berry to make an impact as Pat, Keith’s wife, and Owen Teale to convince as a QC.
And, in between all of these star players, this mature, composed drama never forgets Cooper’s victims. Based on the book Catching the Bullseye Killer, written by Wilkins and journalist Jonathan Hill (played by David Fynn), it’s a carefully told account of events that avoids grim reconstructions and finds its tension in how long the victims’ families had to wait for closure and justice – a twenty-year wait for a golden nugget that’s uncovered with a palpable and moving sense of relief.
The Pembrokeshire Murders is available on ITV Hub. It is also available on BritBox, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.