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A moving drama gives tumbling financial dominoes a human face

Why did the BBC mess around with the scheduling of Dominic Savage’s moving and resonant credit-crunch drama, Freefall (14 July, 9pm)? I was first invited to a screening of it in late March and was told it would be shown in early summer. Then it was put back to August. Finally, the Beeb decided to show it in mid-July, just as its natural audience – the BBC2 crowd – drifts off to Italy and Provence. Freefall was filmed pretty much in real time, as the financial crisis unfolded last year; and though I do appreciate the argument for holding on to it until the dust had settled somewhat, I still think it would have got much more attention if it had been screened as soon as possible. What is the point of investing in a project like this and allowing it to slip into the schedules virtually unnoticed? Savage and his actors, some of whom turned in the best performances I’ve seen in ages, could be forgiven for feeling mighty fed up.

Granted, Freefall was flawed. Savage’s three narratives – the director devises his own storylines, around which his actors improvise – were perhaps just a little too neat and expository, and there were a couple of unnecessary flourishes of melodrama and sentimentality along the way. But the film also managed to give tumbling financial dominoes a human face. Mortgages, even when packaged and bundled up and sold at vast profit by clever men and women with Prada briefcases, involve homes as well as houses.

In the City, Gus (Aidan Gillen) celebrated the profitable despatch of his latest bundle by masturbating in the office lavatory, an act as brief and clinical as the deal itself. Lower down the food chain, however, the consequences of his heedless shabbiness were becoming apparent. In suburban west London, Dave (Dominic Cooper), a mortgage broker with a tongue so silken his victims felt they had been polished rather than bullied, had successfully persuaded Jim (Joseph Mawle) to sign on the dotted line. Jim was a shopping mall security guard who lived in a council flat with his wife, Mandy (Anna Maxwell Martin), and their children. Jim wanted the dream – house, garden, built-in dishwasher – and Dave had told him he could afford it. But that was about all he had told him. Dave’s sin was the sin of omission. It was born of his greed. His eyes were dark and bright, like jet.

After this, events took on their own, sickly momentum. The clock ticked. Jim and Mandy couldn’t meet their mortgage payments, and Dave couldn’t meet their eye. In the City, bundles now proving themselves difficult to shift, Gus found himself locked out of his office. Gus was the only character we never saw at home, which was clever. It emphasised his detachment from his own life and, thus, from the lives of others. The masters of the universe know nothing of how the rest of us live; we are pawns in their games.

Gillen’s performance as Gus was astonishing. He ticked like a bomb. The scenes in which he took his teenage daughter out to lunch – her mother was now living with her music teacher, and without ever meeting either of them, you knew why – were some of the truest I have seen on television. He was utterly pathetic, desperately punctuating their mutual silences with awkward questions and offers of, yes, oysters and chips.

Cooper, too, shone – so much, in fact, that I might just have to give in and see him in Mamma Mia! after all. You could have driven through him in a tank, he was so wide. In every situation, he bounced, like a rubber ball.

The performance I loved best, however, was that of Maxwell Martin. Her character didn’t quite believe that dreams come true, so, by necessity, Maxwell Martin was as quiet and unshowy as Cooper was loud. But you saw first fear, then self-loathing, and finally denial, moving almost imperceptibly across her face every time she opened a letter, or every time the mortgage company called.

Very few directors can coax from actors performances as uniformly nuanced and true as these. I predict a Bafta for Savage, stupid summer scheduling or not.

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 20 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, King and Country