There is a lot of water imagery in “Dublin Murders,” from the perpetual Irish rain to shots of the Irish Sea. It’s atmospheric, but it also serves a bigger purpose: a reminder that far off ripples can expand into devastating waves.
Based on the first two novels in Tana French’s bestselling and Edgar Award-winning Dublin Murder Squad series, “In the Woods” and “The Likeness,” “Dublin Murders” is, on the surface, about two homicide detectives, Rob Reilly (Killian Scott) and Cassie Maddox (Sarah Greene), trying to solve the murder of a young girl whose body was found ritually posed at an archaeological dig in the woods. In was in these same woods 20 years earlier where two children disappeared, leaving behind their friend who was found hugging a tree and screaming, wearing ripped clothes and shoes filled with another child’s blood.
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There are other complications to this visceral set-up — and in “Dublin Murders,” it is these complications that significantly elevate the story above the typical police procedural. Both Reilly and Maddox have big, big secrets that they have to keep hidden to maintain their jobs — and their sanity. This is not a dramatic overstatement; the entire eight-episode series is a meditation on the long-term impact of trauma on children. It’s an empathetic psychological thriller that hammers home the fact that time cannot heal all wounds.
To say more is to give story-ruining spoilers, but needless to say, “Dublin Murders” could come with a laundry list of trigger warnings: child endangerment, rape, and police brutality among them. It’s not an utter downer of a slog because Scott and Greene are ludicrously charismatic performers. They send jittery sparks across the screen playing opposite each other as chain-smoking, smart-mouthed police partners; individually, it allows them to keep the audience’s sympathies despite each character making profoundly self-destructive choices.
Filmed in Belfast — with a crew that was just off the freshly-wrapped “Game of Thrones” — the show’s vaguely supernatural undercurrent is deftly inserted into the gloom; it never veers into jump scare fun house parody. All of this stays true to the swirling atmospherics of the original novels; French weaves allusions to Celtic mythology and folk tales throughout her work. The titular woods are looming and gorgeous as they appear and recede in the mist, but sight is never lost of the fact that humans are the animals who lurk there, and they are the true threat.
This adaptation by showrunner, writer, and executive producer Sarah Phelps — who also wrote the outstanding 2015 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” — is right up Starz’s “Outlander” alley. TV versions of sprawling, eerie, complex storylines have found a resonant home with their audience. There are two types of people in the world: those with an obsessive devotion to French’s books — and those who haven’t read them yet. I will bet that there is a strong Venn Diagram overlap between “Outlander” readers and French die-hards. (Among the obsessives are myself and none other than Stephen King, who in his review for French’s “The Witch Elm” for the New York Times, wrote that “to read a French novel…is to enter an O.C.D. world where madness seems very close.” It’s almost like this guy King is a helluva writer.)
But the choice to combine “In the Woods” and “The Likeness” into one story creates the only true hitch in “Dublin Murders.” While French deftly introduces the lead of the next book in her series during the current novel, this is harder to pull off in a television series. “In the Woods” is Reilly’s story; “The Likeness” is Maddox’s, and both tales are dense narratives full of shifty characters and moody locations. “Dublin Murders” flips between the two tales in such a way that doesn’t feel organic; a viewer gets into the flow of Reilly’s tale and then is jostled back to Maddox. Maddox’s storyline starts to seep in your bones and then the action returns to Reilly.
The saving grace is that both plots are deftly told; you root for Reilly and Maddox as they are fighting the rip current of their buried histories. Lucky for us, “Dublin Murders” revels in characters that can both sink and swim.
“Dublin Murders” premieres Sunday, November 10 at 8 p.m. ET on Starz.
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