The British have an insatiable appetite for crime fiction, whether it appears in print or on television screens. Putting aside the twee tea cozy mysteries of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot, however, these thrillers are not only taut but also bleak depictions of the psychological fallout from murder: tracing, as novelist Ruth Rendell has done so well in her work, how crime affects not just the victim, but also those left behind. Murder doesn’t just destroy a single life; it corrupts everyone with which it comes in contact.
ITV’s superlative murder mystery Broadchurch, which wraps up its eight-episode run tonight in the U.K. (it heads Stateside later this year on BBC America), explores just that, a gorgeously realized and emotive thriller that revolves around the murder of an 11-year-old boy, Danny Latimer (Oskar McNamara), in a seaside town on the Dorset coast, and the investigation by the police and the media to unmask his killer.
Created by Chris Chibnall, Broadchurch is, in many ways, a homegrown response to the riveting Nordic Noir television trend, which has captured the imagination of U.K. viewers in a very unexpected and palpable way. Like Forbrydelsen before it, Broadchurch focuses on both the police investigation—embodied here by churlish Detective Inspector Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and eager-to-be-liked Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman)—and how Danny’s family copes in the wake of such monumental grief. ITV’s Broadchurch—which was deemed “another jewel in the channel’s drama crown” by The Independent—has proven to be a huge success in its native Britain, luring in roughly 9 million consolidated viewers, putting it on par with the massively successful Downton Abbey.
Everyone is a suspect in Danny’s death, from the cheerful local vicar (Doctor Who’s Arthur Darvill) and the grizzled newsagent (David Bradley) to Danny’s own father, Mark (Andrew Buchan). Secrets have a way of spilling out in a murder investigation, and Broadchurch does a fantastic job of charting the numerous atomic explosions that follow in its wake. Everyone in the idyllic seaside town has something to conceal, something they’re running from, a terrible past that they’re looking to forget. Even Danny, the poor dead boy at the center of the story, seems to have harbored some terrible secret, one worth killing him over. Just what that is—and whodunit—remains the overarching plot that carries an electric current throughout the action.
Tennant’s Alec Hardy—whose name would appear to be a clear allusion to Jude the Obscure author Thomas Hardy—is no exception to the above. Unlikable and snarky, he’s an outsider who has come to Broadchurch with scandal trailing him, after he failed to put away a different child murderer in another town. Expectedly, his and Ellie’s partnership is of the chalk and cheese variety; returning from maternity leave, Ellie discovers that Alec has not only joined the local force, but has taken the position that was hers by right. But rather than fall into stereotypical patterns, Broadchurch instead weaves a different pattern, setting up Alec as a dark influence upon Ellie. While he’s fleeing demons of his own, he represents a man who has seen clear into the void, whose own moral corruption is the opposite of Ellie’s sunny optimism and trust.
But this being a mystery in the vein of Forbrydelsen (or even of Twin Peaks) means that Ellie will have to face the obliteration of her own trusting nature as she’s forced to see her neighbors for what they truly are. Suspicion and fear lurk around every corner in Broadchurch, and by the time the seventh episode rolls around, numerous lives have been destroyed by persecution and doubt. Not least of which is the marriage between Danny’s parents, handyman Mark and receptionist Beth (Jodie Whittaker). After 15 years of marriage, Mark and Beth’s relationship in not only on the rocks, but is completely splintering after crashing against them. Even a family has secrets from one another and the Latimers—including Danny’s 15-year-old sister Chloe (Charlotte Beaumont), living a secret life of her own—are no exception. The unspoken question that hovers uneasily in the misty air is: how well do we ever know anyone, even our family members?
What follows is an intense and often-merciless portrayal of grief and loss, as the Latimer clan unravels after Danny’s murder. Whittaker delivers a soul-stirring performance as the inconsolable Beth, a mother’s heartbreak etched all over her face. Over the course of the seven episodes thus far, it’s her performance that often anchors Broadchurch, much in the way that Ann Eleonora Jørgensen’s did in Forbrydelsen: a mother’s grief becomes a thread that weaves its way through the labyrinth of loss on display here. It’s both a tether and a knife in the gut.
The rest of Broadchurch’s cast is equally as accomplished: Colman (Peep Show), so fantastic in the 2011 dramatic film Tyrannosaur, proves once again that she’s equally adept at comedy and drama, rendering Ellie’s journey from innocence to awareness as something fascinating and troubling to watch. Tennant is tremendous as Alec Hardy, his caustic exterior belying an unexpectedly tender and wounded interior life that is littered with discarded emotion. (Unlike Sofie Gråbøl's grim-faced and emotionally taciturn Sarah Lund.) His own struggles are rendered with bleak clarity here, the sense that this is his last chance at redemption only too tangible. Special praise is required for Pauline Quirk for her fantastic turn as the menacing Susan Wright, a dog-walking, chain-smoking hellion who lives in a caravan and oozes with malice. (A confrontation between her and Carolyn Pickles’ Maggie Radcliffe, the editor of the local paper, gave me chills.)
I have my own hunch about who is behind Danny Latimer’s murder, but I won’t reveal my thoughts here lest I spoil the series for American viewers, because half of the thrill of Broadchurch is in watching the way that the suspicion falls on each potential suspect in turn, and how each party’s secrets are laid bare by the harsh glare of the investigation. Like the Nordic Noir dramas before it, this is a show that demands analysis and conjecture from its viewers, rather than passive viewing. If you're not turning over the clues in your mind over and over again, you're not watching properly.
With insight and conviction, Broadchurch depicts how a sleepy seaside town is roused from its slumber by a horrific crime, and how closed off we are from one another. It’s a hard truth that’s challenging for the characters to come to terms with and likely for viewers as well. One can only hope, however, that the transcendent, poignant, and perfect Broadchurch gets the audience it so richly deserves when it heads to BBC America later this year. The alternative would be nothing less than a gross injustice.