UK TV review: Time
James R | On 07, Jun 2021
“We do the very best we can and often that’s not enough,” admits Eric McNally (Stephen Graham), a prison officer who’s been doing his job for more than 20 years. He works at (the fictional) HMP Craigmore, attempting to keep the men under his watch safe and compliant with the law. When Mark Cobden (Sean Bean) arrives on his wing to serve a four-year sentence, Eric is the kind but stern face in a hostile crowd. But, as Jimmy McGovern’s drama unfolds, it becomes clear that one man’s good intentions won’t be enough to help them both.
The three-part series gradually peels back the layers of brutality surrounding Mark, a former teacher who has been sentenced for killing someone. It’s hard to reconcile that crime with his mild-mannered demeanour, and that juxtaposition gives Sean Bean some seriously meaty material to sink his teeth into. He delivers one of the best performances of his career here, as we see Mark trying to work out not only his place in this new, closed-off society but also who he is, inside or outside of prison. As he’s being processed early on, he’s asked about his religious beliefs, and he timidly admits to being a lapsed Catholic – not just a way to introduce chaplain Mary-Louise (a wonderfully warm Siobhan Finneran), but also a quick snapshot of everything we need to know about him as a person.
That ability to convey the specific nuances of each character with the slightest of touches is what makes McGovern’s work so rich – it’s no surprise that Bean (who previously starred in his drama Broken) would reunite with the writer for this probing piece. And those depths are afforded to every person we see on screen, from Brian McCardie’s menacing Jackson Jones, capable of intimidating anyone on either side of the bars, to the inmate Mark helps to learn how to read and write. Director Lewis Arnol paces things perfectly to allow us time to get to know each person, finding moments for tender compassion and loyal support as well as horrifying violence and petty bullying. It’s an immersive ensemble piece, unflinching but never unbearable, gripping but never melodramatic.
Key to that is the equally understated performance by Stephen Graham, who is remarkable as McNally. We soon learn that his son, David, is behind bars in another prison – a fact that leads him to seek out drastic ways to help protect him. What emerges is a portrait of a system that forces men to go to extremes to either survive or ensure the survival of the people they care about. Every person we meet is tested on their willingness to follow the rules or give in to corruption, creating a cycle of crime, punishment and distrust – one in which redemption is possible, but often appears impossibly out of reach. The result is a riveting, moving and powerfully composed study of a penal system that keeps everyone attached to it captive in some sense, where even guards can’t be fully free from its institutional failings.