Cinemania: Memorable miniseries make for engrossing viewing

January 19, 2017 GMT

The last few years have seen a flourishing of the dramatic miniseries genre on the small screen. Produced not only by television networks, but also by cable venues, film studios, and streaming providers like Amazon and Netflix, these multi-part works provide engaging storylines, tend to feature prominent actors along with top-quality writing and production values, and enable more compact viewing than standard TV series. American television has introduced us to a number of admirable examples; some of the best, however, come from England and Europe. I will be writing about a number of these in future columns, but want to concentrate on three exceptionally good series from Europe.

”The Night Manager” (2016), England

Widely honored by critics, and winner of three Golden Globes last week, this six-part sequence, based on a recent novel by John LeCarre, stars relative newcomer Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine, a former special forces operative, now working quietly as the night manager of an upscale Cairo hotel. An escapade resulting in the death of a hotel guest over secret information she had possession of causes Pine to flee to Switzerland to escape danger. There he takes on management of a remote luxury hotel.

Enter guest Richard Roper (veteran Hugh Laurie), a billionaire international arms dealer who had been behind the murder of the Cairo woman and who supplies weapons surreptitiously to the most ruthless and repressive regimes. In the meantime, the British government is trying to find a way to expose and incriminate Roper. Their agent (played by OIivia Coleman of Broadchurch fame) seeks out Pine to serve an undercover role in shaking loose Roper’s empire.

Pine plays off his developing friendship with Roper to infiltrate the tycoon’s inner circle, and finds himself in the role of Roper’s chief attache, as well as the lover of Roper’s mistress Jed (Elizabeth Debicki). Directed by Oscar winner Susanne Bier, the plot is richly complex, involving a number of deceptions and betrayals as suits the espionage mode of LeCarre. Both Hiddleston and Laurie are stellar. Hiddleston’s Jonathan reveals unexpected layers of character and rampant charm, and Laurie is both sympathetic and loathsome as the perpetrator.

The series’ locations settings are dazzling, and though the romance between Pine and Jed stretches credibility, the narrative as a whole is gripping.

”South Riding” (2011), England

Based on the wonderful 1936 novel by Winifred Holtby, South Riding is the poignant but powerful story of young Sarah Burton (brilliantly played by Anna Maxwell Martin, who may be known to viewers from the superb BBC series, “The Bletchley Circle”). Burton has left Oxford behind after the death of her fiancé in the Great War and has assumed the position of headmistress of a girls’ school in the fictional town of South Riding, Yorkshire.

Burton’s liberal, progressive ideas (about education, about economics, about women’s roles in post-war Britain) challenge the entrenched conservatism of her community and draw the ire of a local aristocratic farmer Robert Carne (David Morrisey), a recent war veteran, who seems to stand for the very traditions that the free-thinking, pacifist Burton finds stuffy and oppressive. Complicating their stories are the local opposition to her reformist ways, and the tragic failure of Carne’s fortune and family.

The two are at loggerheads, but the chemistry between them is indisputable. With a backdrop of rural England’s interwar poverty, class prejudices, the rise of socialism, and the machinations of the town’s citizens who have their own agendas to further, the story evolves as Burton and Carne engage in a hesitant, at times ungainly romantic connection. She is taken with his stolid integrity and moved by his private sorrows; he is beguiled by her passion and fierce crusade to better lives. Nobody does period drama better than the British, and this small but stirring story, told in three episodes, is no exception.

”The Break” (2016), Belgium [In Flemish, with subtitles]

My husband and I finished watching this spectacular noir series last night, and we are both in mourning that it is over. Produced by a newly revitalized Belgian TV industry, “The Break” follows the investigation by Detective Yoann Peeters (Yoann Blanc in a riveting performance), who has relocated to his small hometown after a troubled history as an urban cop.

Peeters, recently widowed in a police raid that went wrong, is called to investigate the death of young Driss Assani (Jeremy Zagba), a 19-year-old football (soccer) player from Africa who has been recruited to upgrade the local team’s competitive edge. The knotty story moves back and forth in time as Peeters deals with his own demons while probing the dark underside of life in bucolic Heiderfeld, where clandestine practices, corruptions, and age-old vendettas lurk behind the gorgeous Belgian countryside.

Given that Driss, a winsome and talented young man, is African, his presence uncorks repressed racial and colonialist impulses, and ignites the sexually conservative atmosphere of the town. Complicating his investigation are the anxieties of his deputy investigator Dummer (Guiallume Kerbush) who cannot decide whether Peeters is trustworthy, the teenage rebellion of his displaced daughter Camille (Sophie Breyer), and the suspicion of his superiors who seem eager to thwart Peeters. As he wrestles with insecurities, guilt over his wife’s death and daughter’s angst, and the cryptic doings of the town’s residents, he verges on crack up, but his keen investigative insights pull him back from the brink. Anne Coesens is effective as the local woman with whom he has renewed a relationship, but she has disturbing secrets of her own. Not to be missed!