Thursday, 26 March 2015

Israeli and British thrillers: the good and the bad

Did you watch Prisoners of War, or Hatufim if I can allow myself to use the Hebrew name without the Hebrew characters? This was the original on which the American series Homeland was based.
Yoram Toledano and Ishai Golan in Hatufim
The US series had some excellent actors, but they had to make up for a painful thinness of plot. A Marine sergeant returns from eight years in terrorist captivity and, seemingly within days, he’s in Congress and frontrunner to be the next Vice President? Really? In the Israeli series, the equivalent character is seen scanning Jobs Vacant columns, looking for something he can go for after seventeen years (not merely eight) out of the employment market – years in which his friends have built careers.

In addition, in Ishai Golan Hatufim offers one of those truly memorable characters, ambivalent, vulnerable, terrified, courageous. The series would be worth watching just for him.

The only original spark that Homeland was the equivalent character, played masterfully by Claire Danes as a brilliant spy struggling with mental illness. She's great, but is that enough to support four seasons? I found it couldn’t get me through two.

Hatufim, on the other hand, compels from beginning to end, through two fine seasons (and there were no more). Who’s up to what? Who’s on whose side? Who’s gone over to the enemy, who’s stayed loyal? We’re forced to reconsider our judgements again and again, and not by artificial devices, but in ways that remain completely coherent with the overall narrative. Nor is the enemy entirely bad, with plenty of sympathetic characters (to be fair, as in Homeland), as well as a completely dire one, introduced in powerfully horrific fashion at the beginning of season 2.

So good was Hatufim, that I turned to the next Israeli series broadcast on the BBC with high expectations. Hostages ( Bnei Aruba) sadly disappointed them.

Hostages: no way to spend a quiet evening at home
The acting, I should say, was excellent and the series had Hatufim’s strength in creating atmosphere. Those two factors were compelling enough to keep me watching to the end. But the plot! My dear. It was as weak as Homeland. The event that kicks off the action is the kidnapping, in their own home, of the whole family of a leading surgeon who is slated to carry out a minor operation on the Israeli Prime Minister. The aim of her abductors? That she kill her patient on the operating table.

Throughout the series, a central theme is that the would-be assassins are able to watch the surgeon wherever she goes, such is their skill and their support from inside the security services. With such power, it’s hard to understand why they don’t just bump off the Prime Minister themselves, instead of going for a risky abduction that can (and does) go wrong, and relying on a proxy to act for them.

The answer is that was what it took to generate material for ten episodes.

More tedious still, characters keep being left in positions where they could phone the police or otherwise call for help. And somehow they never do. “Why,” I wanted to ask the producers, “do you demand that viewers believe that people taken captive in their home, and presented with an excellent opportunity to contact the police, would fail to do so?”

Again the answer is that the series wouldn’t have lasted beyond two episodes, and they needed ten. But I have to say that because we need to keep the series going strikes me as a poor justification or implausible plot devices.

On the theme of strong and weak plot devices, did you see Broadchurch?

Season 1 was extraordinary television. It proved in a British-made series what the Scandinavians had shown before: you don’t need a string of bodies to generate real tension in a thriller – just one will do.

The study of the impact of a violent death on a small community made excellent viewing, especially the way suspicion, leading to persecution, can fall unjustly on individuals whose only offence is to be different from those around them. And a particular atmosphere was created by the decision not to let even the actors know at the outset who the perpetrator was: it seems that making the revelation a shock to the actors made it all the more shocking to the audience.

Such was the success of season 1 that the producers had to make a season 2. Alas. It’s Homeland compared to Hatufim. Instead of gripping thriller we had meandering soap, at least as concerned with who bedded whom (and whether they still were) than with the central criminal concern – to which another one was added, presumably to give us more to get excited about, though the reality is that it just blurred the focus.

All this against the background of court proceedings which pit two allegedly outstanding lawyers against each other, one of whom conducts such a lamentable case that the eventual verdict becomes inevitable (note that I don’t mention which one: you’ll get no spoilers from me – the series spoils itself perfectly adequately on its own).

Broadchurch. Olivia Colman was superb as ever.
And whatshisname was OK
The only redeeming feature? The performance of Olivia Colman, incapable of taking on any part without investing it with a quality beyond most other actors.

If you haven’t seen Hatufim or season 1 of Broadchurch, then you could do a lot worse than to watch them. Hostages or season 2 of Broadchurch? Only watch them if the only alternative is re-runs of Jeremy Clarkson in Top Gear.

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