Home Theatre: Drama in the interrogation chamber
A fortnightly column that focuses on notable content available on the streaming platforms around you, and this week it's Criminal: UK, streaming on Netflix
Chamber drama, at first glance, may not seem like the most exciting of cinematic forms. After all, it is derived from plays set in a single backdrop and seems like the very antithesis of the word cinematic. But shooting a drama in a confined space with a limited cast can really amplify the tension as has been proven time and again by masters like Ingmar Bergman and Sidney Lumet. The Netflix mini-series I want to talk about in this column, Criminal, actually has much in common with the latter's classic of the genre, 12 Angry Men. Aside from being chamber dramas, both works are about determining the guilt or innocence of a crime suspect albeit at different stages of the process. While the Lumet film is set in the jury deliberation chamber after the trial, Criminal takes place in the police interrogation chambers — one of those stark rooms with a one-way mirror — where the suspect is questioned before being charged, and the adjoining dark observation area. The claustrophobic atmosphere lends itself well to the psychological drama that unfolds.
Criminal is a three-episode mini-series produced on the same sets in four different languages with a different local cast for each. These four versions are set in UK, France, Spain, and Germany, respectively. Each has its own core cast of interrogators, whose story arc the season follows, in addition to a different case in each episode. I watched Criminal: UK in its entirety and one episode each in the other versions. There's a good amount of localisation in the productions that might make it a bit hard to follow certain aspects of the stories/cases (the first episode of Criminal: Germany, for instance, draws heavily on the post-wall dynamics in Berlin). But even if the nuances escape you, the larger motivation(s) and the drama are sure to draw you in. That said, the UK version is, predictably, the one that's easiest for us to relate to so I'll stick with that for the rest of this discussion.
There's some clever cinematography and editing technique on display — scene shifts from the interrogation chamber to the observation room are done via cuts to the video recording of the interview; the camera often pulls back from one room to the other through the mirror or focuses on the action in one room while also showing reactions in the other through reflections; etc. This can get a bit showy at times, but isn't too distracting and does serve to keep things dynamic.
More importantly, for a chamber drama to work, the performances need to be on point, and the ones in Criminal certainly are. The only name I recognised going in was David Tennant, and he turns in a brilliant performance as the suspect in episode one — a doctor accused of murdering his step-daughter. Having previously only seen him in flamboyant roles in things like Doctor Who and Good Omens, I wasn't sure I'd be able to buy him as this chilling, withdrawn character, but he completely nails it. So good was Tennant that I didn't think anyone would be able to top him in the subsequent episodes. The very next episode proved me wrong. It features Hayley Atwell as the suspect, Stacey, who is accused of poisoning her sister's boyfriend, and boy, what a bravura performance it is! I couldn't take my eyes off her. The way she goes from being brazenly in-your-face to completely vulnerable is simply superb. This episode's handling of domestic violence is sensitive, as well, though they could have done without specifying that the unseen aggressor was a black man (needless perpetuation of a problematic stereotype).
The final episode features a lovely turn by Youssef Kerkour as the lorry driver who has abandoned his truck suspected to contain immigrants smuggled across the border. He perfectly conveys the quandary of Jay, who only took on a job for the money and didn't realise the trouble he would get in. Someone who, as one character puts it, is not a "bad person" just one caught in over his head. This episode features another line that's actually my favourite of the series — "Does it really matter what happens to us if [the lives of the immigrants are saved]?" Here's a show that puts the lives of immigrants above the career of some police officers (and rightfully so). True, it's one of the detectives who says this, but he's not portrayed as a hero for saying so, just a decent human being.
This same last episode pulls the rug out from under our feet with an interesting twist that further reinforces that these detectives are not heroes, but fallible just like the rest of us. It's also commendable that the series gets us to invest in these core characters (I haven't mentioned these actors before, but they are uniformly good) within the span of just three episodes, in which time it also manages to throw in a fair bit of plot development and character illustration. I liked too that the authority figures in all the four versions are women (even the outside detective Addo who makes an appearance in the final episode).
On my rewatch of the series, I noticed several satisfying bread crumbs leading up to the twist in the last episode, which were nice, but also found that the show was just as absorbing even knowing what was coming. That's always the golden standard for me — a piece of work that stands the test of a revisit. I started off this column comparing Criminal to 12 Angry Men, and that's a film I can revisit over and over, one that compels me to watch the whole way through each time. Criminal may not be quite the classic that the Lumet film is, but it did pass the rewatch test once and absolutely has me looking forward to season two.