The week in TV: The Looming Tower; The Widow; The Bay; A House Through Time and more – review
A heavyweight cast played warring factions in US intelligence in the run-up to 9/11, while Kate Beckinsale moved on to her best Lara Croft impersonation
The Looming Tower (BBC2) | iPlayer The Widow (ITV) | itv.com The Bay (ITV) | itv.com A House Through Time (BBC2) | iPlayer The Durrells (ITV) | itv.com Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema: Disaster Movies (BBC4) | iPlayer
The Looming Tower is quite the piece of kit. Based on Lawrence Wright’s 2007 Pulitzer winner, it relates, with relatively few bells and whistles, and eschewing the bulbous fanfaring of megastars, the often tragicomic, petty or tawdry timelines behind the run-up to 9/11. We all know how this ends: the delight – and, yes, I’ll use that word, for this is all about a yarn skilfully acted and crafted – lies in the prosaic tellings of the dreadful bouts of footshootery that assailed the FBI and CIA from 1998 onwards
The cast – there’s Jeff Daniels, Peter Sarsgaard, Tahar Rahim, and later down the line of 10 episodes we get Wrenn Schmidt and Virginia Kull – act as a superbly balanced ensemble, no one quite hogging the light, although Daniels’s gung-ho G-man, all suits, boots and mistresses in every port, has a fair stab. Rather, this sober, sane, yet intensely exciting recreation will build and build and have you at the end shaking your head at miscommunications, at the welters of woeful inevitabilities, at the laws of unintended consequences, at American hubris.
There are flaws. Did Rahim’s Lebanese-American agent Ali Soufan really get to bounce, almost fly, around the rooftops of Tirana and Harare as he chased down al-Qaida cells? Was quite so much sex being had among, surely, relatively ugly people? But, given a little dramatic licence for our blood-sugar levels, I’d generally trust documentarist Alex Gibney, one of the executive producers, to give as scrupulously homeworked a version of the truth as anyone in television today. A succès d’estime, which also has timely, if queasy, parallels with current events. Last weekend’s unconscionable bombings in Sri Lanka, that perennial teardrop of a country, were partly the result of a similar, um, lash-up between jealous agencies purporting to safeguard their homeland. Plus ça change….
I suspect I was rather too rude a couple of weeks ago about The Widow, which probably suffered more than it might by being up against The Victim. True, in the Williams brothers’ African caper Kate Beckinsale still gives a remarkably pouty and frowny performance, though she’s moved on from her Boden look to simply channelling an artfully perspiring Lara Croft, and I still don’t give a flying rat’s ass about what happened to her idiot of a husband. But it has endured, proved moreish, grown richer and grown up, and the scenes in which Ólafur Darri Ólafsson is being led, blind, to his death still chill
Similarly, The Bay has perforce suffered from maybe ill-advised comparisons with Broadchurch – and, let’s face it, everything thriller suffers in any week in which Line of Duty appears (my goodness, what a performance from Stephen Graham. I’m still reeling, a week on, from Sunday’s denouement. I won’t spoil.) Anyway, The Bay, in which Morven Christie was indubitably the best thing about Morecambe, even in the rain, resolved itself happily enough, although… she still has to live in the place, doesn’t she? As do some other women? I’ve seldom witnessed such a collection of deadbeat and ne’er-do-well male seaside characters outside of… well, Broadchurch.
The first series of A House Through Time, David Olusoga’s trawl through social history by focusing on one single dwelling, was set in Liverpool and well enough received, but it is in this incarnation, and in Newcastle, that it has really flowered. Goodness but it grips, and part of its fascination, and charm, is simply Olusoga.
Always empathetic, yet somehow never cloying or patronising, he’s currently unearthing the almost universally sorry tales of lives lived in Ravensworth Terrace. Last week, we got the relatively mundane fin-de-siècle stories of its guises as a theatrical boarding house and IRA safe house. It was in the previous week’s, though, that we were properly vouchsafed the horrors of life before the welfare state, when even the apparently wealthiest and luckiest of Newcastle society could be brought down, townhouse to poorhouse, through one appalling misinvestment, one crime, one drop of familial bad blood.
Olusoga is aided as ever by a discreet squadron of archivists, librarians and card-indexers, folk who would run from any limelight but whose intense knowledge, and generosity with it, never fails to illuminate and indeed inspire. The series is on iPlayer but episode one is going soon, bah, so catch up while you can
As I say, I don’t want to be the one to spoil things but it’s no secret that war is looming in The Durrells, so I fully expect the entire household next Sunday evening to be strung up with piano wire by the Gestapo, starting with Lugaretzia and the animals. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t hate it. Quite the opposite. I sit bereft every evening it adorns my screen, near-physically reaching out to the sparkling Corfu sunshine, the water, the boats, the false promises of a simpler 1930s, hating myself for being so easily inveigled. Damn you, Durrells.
Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema, which returned for a one-off afterthought on disaster movies, though surely a whole second series is warranted, was, as ever, so rich in half-forgotten clips that it sent us back to, if we’re lucky, the cupboards, and if we’re not, the remote, in a frustrating mega-cybersearch for long-lost titles. I managed to dig out a DVD of Alive, but it looks like The Poseidon Adventure (featured heavily) is going to cost at least a tenner.
Mr K, betraying his rare inner snob, was extremely rude about Armageddon. Sure, all except pubescent toe-reeking males hate Michael Bay’s loud love of screeching jaggy death-explosions, but this tautly scripted witty feast featured so much more and didn’t deserve Kermode’s tag as “the Donald Trump of disaster movies”. Also, if we’re allowed (as he was) to include 127 Hours, pretty much a disaster for one person only, then why not that splendid agrarian survivalist tale The Martian. Eh? Eh?
He made a fair enough case for disaster movies as based on truly biblical themes: of man’s hubris in reaching for the skies or for posterity, of nature’s vengeance, of small heroic triumphs, of sanguine rebirths and rethinks in a gentler (if now-mangled) world. But, still, our shared glee lies in identifying, with huge help from Kermode, the specific formulaic tropes that characterise, to the point (in talent-challenged hands) of near-parody, any genre; and in shouting at Mark’s choice of clip, in case he dares to unload at us another 30-second slice of unwatchable Lars von Trier, as if there’s any other kind.
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