There just doesn’t seem to have been much of a point in telling this story again. And it is basically the same story, changes in setting notwithstanding: it’s easily possible to write a short paragraph summarising the story, and have it apply to both versions. The UK miniseries has several more hours at its disposal, of course, so it contains more subplots and expands some that were not excised for the movie, which all in all makes for a richer viewing experience. But the broad strokes of the story remain the same, whether in 1985 or in 2010. In fact, almost every scene in the front half of the Gibson film is also in the TV version in one way or the other, which makes the movie seem like a poorly-put together York/Cliff’s Notes outline.
The plot of the UK version: Ron Craven (Bob Peck) is an Inspector in a fictional Yorkshire town whose daughter is some kind of eco-socialist political activist. She quickly ends up being killed by bullets seemingly intended for her father. Before watching the serial, I expected that it would take its time before letting Craven become suspicious of the murder’s circumstances, giving the viewer at least an episode to observe Craven the grieving and possibly guilt-ridden father as opposed to Craven the revenge-seeker and conspiracy unraveler. However, Peck’s Craven finds a very out-of-place gun and a Geiger counter in his daughter’s room even more quickly than Gibson’s version of the character. He lies down in her bed, holding her gun in his hand and glaring menacingly at the camera, while the final lyrics of Willie Nelson’s “Time of the Preacher” play: “Now the lesson is over. And the killing’s begun.” So there’s not much in the way of doubt and confusion there.
Still, the TV series handles this better than its remake, because there is still guilt in Craven, just for a different reason: he knew about his daughter’s involvement with a “soft” terrorist group and what, approximately, they were intending to do. And he hadn’t stopped her, preferring to ignore her anxiety. Also, unlike the movie and contrary to what the Willie Nelson song suggests, well… I don’t want to spoil things, but I wouldn’t consider the serial to be particularly revenge-focused. At least as far as Craven is concerned. Everything is just a little less black-and-white, a little more complicated and narratively unconventional in the UK version.
That applies to the role his daughter continues to play as well: like in the movie, he has hallucinations of his daughter, but this time he also has conversations with her. I had my misgivings about this in my previous review, and I stand by those. The serial’s approach isn’t all that different, but works better because there are more of these scenes with her, and because it’s more obviously Craven imagining her to help sort through the evidence. Despite what Troy Kennedy Martin, the serial’s writer, claims in the special features on the DVD, I would argue that the girl’s presence is at best ambiguous, but probably non-supernatural in origin, the opposite of what the movie suggests.
I’ve already mentioned the subplots, but let me get into a bit more detail: Some are exclusive to the series, owing to its longer running time (like an attempted takeover of a British nuclear waste disposal company by Americans, a parliamentary enquiry into these proceedings, two mysterious British government agents on Craven’s trail, a Northern Ireland connection, a miner’s union dispute, and a struggle between London’s Met and Northern police), some were retained for the Gibson adaptation (like the foreign agent Jedburgh – wonderfully played here by Joe Don Baker -, Craven’s hesitant superiors at the police force, and the possibly dangerous environmental organisation). Some are red herrings, some eventually tie back into the main narrative. Intriguingly, one of the red herrings in the UK version actually turns out to be more important in the film; I won’t spoil which, but it was a change I was not particularly happy with.
In any case, all of these subplots have depth; the characters that play a role in them benefit from three-dimensional writing and subtle acting. Corruption, both high and low-level, is less stark where it is hinted at, and attempted cover-ups are less implausibly successful and all-encompassing. There is no one party who knows absolutely everything, and several parties who’re tapping in the dark almost as completely as the viewer is initially. It helps that the conspiracy, what there is of it, is more of a corporate than a governmental thing this time, though of course the government is involved in some capacity. The TV series has a better angle on how and why intelligence services are using Craven for their own purposes. There are conflicted loyalties, and the motivations for the people who act against the best interests of the country (or do they?) are more nuanced and human. In short, there is nothing the movie does better in this regard, which again begs the question: why did it need to get made?
Even the music, completely nondescript for the movie, is better in the TV show, despite presumably a much smaller budget, and one weird piece of happenstance: It’s a fairly typical-for-the-time synth-and-guitar score, but what’s most striking about it is how much it reminded me of Lethal Weapon (1987). No wonder: Michael Kamen and Eric Clapton are the composers responsible for both the British TV series and the American movie. Through no fault of their own, it’s a bit distracting that a guitar riff starts playing that’s eerily similar to the Mel Gibson/Martin Riggs theme whenever Craven finds a new clue or has to get from one place to another. I can’t deny, however, that the music is quite effective in generating tension, and I must admit that I eventually got used to it being used in the series (around the third episode, I think) and stopped thinking of the two-years younger buddy cop film.
I said in the earlier review that the movie has the wrong title, because the audience is obviously supposed to root for Gibson, with not a lot of unwarranted darkness in sight. Of course Craven is still the main character in the serial and the audience is still supposed to be on his side, but because his situation is so much less black-and-white, the title is a lot more appropriate. Unlike Gibson’s, the Peck Craven does not keep information from anyone, really, and shares it quite freely with people he probably shouldn’t be trusting. That foolhardiness and carelessness somehow makes him seem more single-minded and dangerous, combined with the quiet intensity Peck projects throughout the series. In later episodes, he commits crimes that he really shouldn’t be getting away with (and wouldn’t, if not for special circumstances). But the title doesn’t just apply to him: it definitely covers Jedburgh, the country itself (and possibly the world) is on the precipice of darkness from the perspective of some of the characters, and some of the locations that play a role later on are literally cliffs over darkness. Thematically, there are also the black flowers prophesied by Craven’s daughter, which eventually replace the image of a moving train in the night as the visual leitmotif of the series.
One weird coincidence I can’t help but make note of since both versions of the story are so concerned with nuclear shenanigans by possibly incompetent or evil corporations and governments: The movie was released a year before the Fukushima catastrophe in Japan. The miniseries was broadcast half a year before the Chernobyl incident. Make of that what you will.