The Returned and The Fall: Death warmed up

A zombie thriller and a crime drama that ask you to suspend your disbelief.

The Returned; The Fall
Channel 4; BBC2

Channel 4’s first subtitled acquisition in two decades has been billed as a zombie series but this is not quite right. The Returned (Sundays, 9pm) is so much more, well, French than that: so elegantly made, so thoughtful, so (weirdly, under the circumstances) chic.

Many of its most important characters have, it’s true, come back from the dead. But the actors who play them are not required to wear zombie contact lenses; so far, there has been no foot-dragging, no biting, no growling, moaning or barking. Its writers, Fabrice Gobert and Emmanuel Carrère, are more interested in questions of grief, faith and guilt than in your bog-standard horror and the result is a series – creepy but tender, too – that reminds me strongly of the award-winning Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In (2008). No wonder it broke audience records when it was first shown on the French cable network Canal+.

The Returned is set in a small Alpine town, a place whose quiet desolation is starkly at odds with its beautiful surroundings (we’re talking Perspex bus shelters and modern flats, not chalets and ski lifts). Three years earlier, a coach filled with children and teachers came off a twisting mountain pass and tumbled down a hillside above a dam. There were no survivors.

The parents and siblings of the dead have been trying to put their lives back together – a support group meets every week and a memorial is shortly to be erected – but it has not been easy. There are hints of the fallout all around. Couples have separated; siblings have started drinking too much. People’s eyes still look bruised with crying, even now.

Everything is about to change, however. The dead are returning, quietly and without fuss. In the first episode, a girl called Camille (Yara Pilartz) awoke in the gloaming, scrambled up the hillside and walked home. In the family kitchen, unaware she had been gone for three years, she blithely made herself a sandwich. “I’m so hungry,” she said, when her mother, Claire (Anne Consigny), appeared at the door, trembling. (Hunger seems to be a thing with French zombies; the next one we saw return home, a middle-aged woman, devoured cold spaghetti straight from the pan.) If the children are zombies, their poleaxed parents are automata. Claire was too shocked or too terrified to perform the rituals of reunion. At first, she did not even touch her daughter, perhaps because she feared watching her hand move through thin air.

Consigny’s performance was great. It was as if she was thawing before our eyes, sudden happiness melting the pack ice of three years. You could see it move through her body: a wave of bliss, a ripple of ecstasy – the opposite of a shiver (whatever that might be called).

I’m reluctant to say too much more, as I think the less you know about The Returned, the easier it is to suspend your disbelief and enjoy it on its own terms and perhaps you have it saved up for future watching. It promises to be very good indeed. Elsewhere in town, bad things – terrible things – are happening, though we don’t yet know in what ways, if any, these are linked to the undead. I am already hooked.

Meanwhile, on BBC2, The Fall has finally come to an end (10 June, 9pm). I’ll keep mum about this, too, just in case. But now it’s over, I do feel like having my say on its central controversy, which is that the tough woman cop at its heart – Stella Gibson, as played by Gillian Anderson – was a sop to encourage us to turn a blind eye to the frankly pornographic way in which it depicted violence against young women. I think this is right (though, if so, it also failed, given how uneasy its murder scenes made me and many others).

Still . . . Gillian Anderson. She’s something, isn’t she? Was her turn as Detective Superintendent Gibson the most brilliantly understated and chilly performance ever to make the small screen? Or was she, as she filmed it, mostly thinking about where she had parked her car and what she was going to have for her tea? Mesmerised though I was by both her and her collection of silk blouses, I’m still not sure I know the answer to that one.

Gillian Anderson and her character's collection of silk blouses keep you hooked on "The Fall". Photograph: BBC

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.

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide