‘Liaison’ Review: Eva Green and Vincent Cassel in an Apple TV+ Romantic Thriller That Never Finds Its Pulse
It’s easy to forgive a lot in a romance if the chemistry is strong enough, and for the first couple episodes of Apple TV+’s Liaison, the sparks between Eva Green’s Alison and Vincent Cassel’s Gabriel seem reason enough to forge ahead. It hardly matters if we don’t really understand the international conspiracy that’s reunited these estranged exes, or that we don’t yet understand what transpired between them all those years ago. The smolder between them draws us in, even when all they’re doing is exchanging a wordless gaze through a rain-splattered window.
But without enough fuel to ignite a blaze, smolder is about as far as it gets. By the time Liaison stumbles to a close, whatever flickers of promise it showed early on have long since been stamped out by indifferent storytelling and a bloated run time.
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The narrative is simultaneously expansive in scope and narrow in focus. (Virginie Brac and Ollie Butcher are credited as co-creators.) In the opening minutes, a pair of Syrian hackers (Aziz Dyab’s Samir and Marco Horanieh’s Walid) uncover a sinister plot with major implications for the cybersecurity of several European nations. The U.K., whose systems have already been compromised, tasks Home Office employee Alison with getting the situation under control. By sheer coincidence, their rivals in France outsource their own efforts to Gabriel, an activist turned mercenary.
Toss in Samir and Walid’s flight to freedom, an investigation by a dogged British detective (Olivia Popica’s Hobbs) and a handful of shady government types (including Didier, a French official played with skin-crawling odiousness by Stanislas Merhar), and Liaison has all the makings of a jet-setting thriller. Its priority, however, remains the same whether the characters are in Paris, London or Brussels: This is first and foremost a story about Gabriel and Alison, who’ve not laid eyes on each other since their passionate affair was cut short years ago by a shocking betrayal.
Initially, Liaison‘s tendency to play coy about its central couple’s history works to its advantage. Both stars are able to suggest the richness of their characters through the sheer force of their charisma. Green, who’s been the best part of a bad project more times in her career than I can count, weighs down Alison’s expression with years of compounding regret; Cassel tempers his character’s world-weariness with just enough lightness to joke around with an old colleague or make faces at a cute baby. Together, they regard each other with such tenderness and fury that it can’t help but provoke curiosity.
But somewhere around the middle of the season (directed entirely by Stephen Hopkins), what started out feeling like a slow burn starts to look an awful lot more like wheel-spinning — as if much of the teasing and maneuvering is simply in service of padding out the run time. There’s perhaps a decent feature film to be found in Liaison, but reveals that might have felt a bit anticlimactic at 100 minutes feel irredeemably disappointing at six hour-long episodes.
Technically, a lot happens in each installment. There are shootouts and car chases and undercover operations nested inside other undercover operations. If watching a super-cool, hyper-competent agent do his thing is your jam, Cassel serves that up in spades, whether he’s popping up in new disguises or flirting with a mark until she’s putty in his hands. (Oddly, Liaison keeps its central love story relatively chaste; its steamiest stuff is reserved for other couplings.) Just keeping track of who’s doing what where, or who’s really working for whom, can get downright dizzying.
Yet all of it feels oddly weightless, suspended in a world that has little texture and amid characters that have little depth. A handful of early plot jolts draw their power from relatable anxieties about how easy it might be to undermine the digital systems that so much of modern life depends upon, or how hard it can be to disappear or start fresh in a world under constant surveillance. But the series loses interest in commenting on the real world as it loses itself in its labyrinth of double-crosses and secret allegiances, with the attraction between Gabriel and Alison as its only compass.
Instead of deepening and complicating the network of relationships at its core, the story’s twists and turns only highlight how flimsily conceived they actually are. A few supporting characters are blessed with personalities big enough to overcome a limited presence, like the acerbic cabinet minister played by Peter Mullan. Most exist solely as plot devices — including Kim (Bukky Bakray), Alison’s sort-of stepdaughter who all but disappears from the story once she’s fulfilled her purpose of juicing the stakes of a particular incident.
Even Gabriel and Alison start to look thin upon closer inspection. Green and Cassel mope beautifully, but after a few hours it’s hard not to wish for a bit of variety from their emotional palettes. And the big reveal about what happened between them, when it comes, is simultaneously way too much and too little, too late. On one hand, it’s such an out-of-the-blue bombshell that it threatens to upend the balance of the series entirely; on the other, Liaison barely engages with it at all in its rush to wrap up loose ends.
Fundamentally, it changes very little about our understanding of two characters who are defined by their longing for each other and not much else. And so ends a grand romance we’re meant to believe was so all-consuming it nearly destroyed everyone in its wake 20 years ago, and could reshape the entire balance of world power now: not with an explosive bang, but with the quiet hiss of water dumped over a rapidly cooling pile of ashes.