Reviewed: Life of Crime

Force of nature.

Life of Crime
ITV

I love Hayley Atwell’s performance as a south London cop in Life of Crime (10 May, 9pm) in every respect save for one: her accent. Do you know any coppers this posh? And no, before you ask, she is not supposed to be a Cambridge graduate on the fast track to the top of the Metropolitan Police (see Rupert Penry-Jones in Whitechapel). Her dad was also a policeman and her mum is London Irish, with the brogue to match. When we first meet her, she’s still living at home in a shabby terrace with a velour three-piece suite and a set of wine glasses that look like they came free with petrol. So quite where her immaculate RP came from, I don’t know. Even if she had unaccountably picked it up down her local comprehensive, you’d think she’d occasionally throw in the odd George Osborne-style glottal stop, given the company a copper keeps.

It bothered me a lot, this voice, but I kept watching because I really like the set-up of the series – it begins in 1985, when Denise Woods is a humble WPC in Brixton nick, and then follows her down the years (part two is set in 1997, by which time she is a DI; in part three it’s 2013 and she is a senior officer) – and also because Atwell is a captivatingly good actor when it comes to unspoken emotion. I believe in her character’s commitment to her work – her drive, determination and absolute refusal to allow the men to push her aside – in a way that I very much didn’t in the case of Emily Watson as an MP in The Politician’s Wife. It’s going to be fascinating to see how Atwell ages Denise; from what I read, she has done this with no help at all from wigs and stick-on wrinkles.

Anyway, 1985 . . . A girl has been murdered, but no one – by which I mean Denise’s male superiors – wants to know. Or at least, they would like to take the path of least resistance and hang it on the victim’s father, who has a temper. Denise, on the other hand, wants to know very much indeed. So determined is she to get her man, she might just be about to overstep the mark (I won’t say more, in case you’re saving it up). It’s true that Life of Crime is slightly underwritten (it’s by Declan Croghan, who also brought us episodes of Ripper Street and Waking the Dead); the dialogue is underpowered and lacks the fruity richness of, say, Life on Mars. It can be predictable. It was only a matter of minutes before a colleague had said to Woods: “Are you lesbian, or something?” But the plot is clever, dishing up an act of madness on her part that will have consequences even decades later, and I liked Con O’Neill’s performance as her boss, DI Ferguson, a man whose frayed exterior left you wondering whether he was a decent man masquerading as a ratbag, or a ratbag masquerading as a decent man.     

In truth, though, episode one was worth watching for atmosphere alone. My God, the Eighties. For all that I was there, I still can’t get over them. How weird to remember that women constables were then expected to walk the streets in bulky skirts, sheer-ish tights and cross-body leather handbags (for all their make-up, presumably). Atwell and her co-star Richard Coyle, a detective who drives a brown Ford Capri, did some fantastic Eighties dancing at a nightclub called – I’m guessing at the spelling –Subotica, where the DJ looked exactly like Paul “It-took-me- 90-minutes-to-trim-these-sideburns” King. He played some Go West, which made me smile (most series would have had him spinning the Human League or Spandau Ballet), and when Woods asked him whether he knew the girl who had died, he replied that he had merely “got off with her” one night. Do people still say “got off with”? I’d love to know.

This isn’t Broadchurch, I see that, but it’s great to see yet another tough woman copper hijack prime time. Not so long ago, we had to make do with Jane Tennison. Now, though, they’re everywhere – and some of them even manage to have private lives, too.

Life of Crime concludes on Friday 24 May

Hayley Atwell in Life of Crime. Photo: ITV.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era