Friday, 4 December 2015

Nicola Walker: another fine actor playing strong women's roles

Every now and then an actor, sometimes one who’s been around a while without quite becoming a household name, seems to be everywhere and in everything.

It happens in Hollywood. There was a time when directors seemed to be queuing up to have Meryl Streep in any film they made – and, indeed, any actor of note wanted to play opposite her.

The Meryl Streep case makes another point about this phenomenon: it tends to happen most often with female actors. And what’s true of Hollywood is even truer of the small screen in Britain.

Take Olivia Collman. She appeared in Peep Show in 2003, I suspect with no suspicion that the series would run on until 2015. She was good and she was spotted. She was given a steadily increasing number of parts. And then suddenly, from about 2010, she seemed to be in a string of outstanding productions, such as Rev, Mr Sloane and Broadchurch (well, let’s say outstanding for season 1 of Broadchurch and draw a discreet veil over season 2).

Now the same thing seems to be happening to Nicola Walker. She had a secondary part in Four Weddings and a Funeral way back in 1994, and a good but short run in Spooks, before becoming a TV fixture thanks to Last Tango in Halifax, hardly classic cinema, but nonetheless gently entertaining. And certainly her performance was excellent, as a woman who managed to combine both strength and fragility.

But just recently she’s come into her own in two fine series, Unforgotten and River.

In the first, she plays Detective Chief Inspector Cassie Stuart, leading a murder investigation triggered by the discovery of a skeleton in the basement floor of a demolished building. This seems to be a theme that’s doing the rounds at the moment: the device was also used in From Darkness which, despite having another excellent female lead actor, Anne-Marie Duff, is far less good than Unforgotten.
Nicola Walker as Cassie Stuart in Unforgotten
with Sanjeev Bhaskar who's excellent as her number 2
Walker perfectly creates Cassie Stuart’s character, who avoids any macho attempt to impose her will on her subordinates but, nonetheless, has enough confidence in her judgement to back it and insist on its being followed, without actually throwing her weight around. The interplay with the other police officers is beautifully handled: her unaggressive but resolute behaviour achieves results, if sometimes at the expense of irritation among her colleagues who don’t at first believe she’s right, and are irritated by the work she generates for them.

Most notably, for a while she’s alone in believing they are dealing with a murder and that they can solve it.

The series brings together a whole string of fine actors, playing well-defined and fascinating characters – some old, from the generation of the young man whose skeleton has been discovered, others in mid-career, including the police. It’s an engaging story, well structured and played out. And Nicola Walker puts in a great performance in another of those fine, strong female roles that are beginning to become more common – she’s strong, but can be deeply upset by some of the harrowing information he discovers. And that makes her all the more convincing.

As for River, its basic premise is brilliantly intriguing. Cleverly, given the attraction to British audiences of what’s come to be known as ‘Nordic Noir’ – the highly original thrillers that come this way from Scandinavia – the lead role of Detective Inspector John River is played by Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård. So we have a Swedish detective working for the Metropolitan Police – Nordic Noir in London.

The series uses the character of River for a strikingly ingenious play of sanity within insanity. River suffers from a psychiatric condition which leaves him seeing, and indeed conversing at some length and even physically interacting – he has a number of fights – with dead people who had some kind of relationship with him, such as murder victims. He remains an outstanding detective either despite this mental illness, or perhaps even because of it.

The series handles this theme with great intelligence. It ensures that he never learns anything from any of these ghosts that he didn’t already know. Indeed, there are some lovely moments when a ghost will say something like “well, what did you think?” when he discovers something that the ghost never told him. That way, the spectator can accept that the ghosts are creations of his own mind.

In River, Nicola Walker is Detective Sergeant Jackie ‘Stevie’ Stevenson, his dead former partner – a partner in the professional, police sense, though as the series progresses we begin to suspect that either or perhaps both of them might have been interested in a relationship that went further than that.

Walker plays the role with the same skill and panache as she brought to Cassie Stuart in Unforgotten, but for the development of a completely different character. Stevie is a woman from an extended family in the criminal underworld, so by going into the police, she was something of a black sheep. That background makes her tough, self-reliant, funny, with a great love for popular music and fast food, and a strong streak of street wisdom.

Deeply hidden in that background there lies a secret that also gave her character a certain vulnerability. It came out in her last investigation, just before her death. The series has us following River through the process of investigation that leads to his discovering what lay behind her death, and does it  in a way that keep us interested, entertained and often amazed.

Two fine series. With great, strong female characters. Both played by Nicola Walker – and I promised last time I wrote on this subject that I’d talk about her.

My promise is kept. Now over to you to enjoy the series, if you haven’t already.

No comments: