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At a time when television seems obsessed with broadening its scope – global location-hopping, huge budgets, vast all-star casts, epic fantasy worlds – Criminal (Netflix) is a bracing blast of fresh air. This is a drama that literally doesn’t go anywhere.
The anthology series is set almost entirely inside a police interview room, where suspects played by a guest cast are interrogated by a regular team of detectives, trying to ascertain their guilt and extract a confession.
Crimes are committed off-screen, so there’s no violence, manhunt or high-octane chases. The thrills come entirely from the intense, claustrophobic game of mental cat-and-mouse. Thankfully, for such a boldly stripped-back premise and for the benefit of the tape, I can confirm it delivers.
Each standalone police procedural introduces a new case to crack. The specialist detective team is headed by DI Vanessa Hobbs (Katherine Kelly on ferocious form), who set up the dedicated interview suite – all bleeping recording devices and unsettlingly stark lighting – a year previously and is having to justify its existence to her superiors by getting results. No pressure, then.
In Criminal’s minimalistic milieu, only two other locations are ever seen: the adjoining observation room, where police and other law enforcement officials can watch proceedings through a two-way mirror, and a corridor outside where detectives take breaks, make phone calls, jab at the vending machine and vape out of a window.
This is global streaming giant Netflix, though, so naturally there’s an international twist. The dozen episodes are divided between four countries – the UK, France, Germany and Spain – directed by and starring local talent, filmed in their native language, all with subtitles.
The three British episodes are written by Killing Eve’s George Kay and directed by Endeavour’s Jim Field Smith, who co-created the whole shebang. Clear as mud? Marvellous.
The opening instalment is intentionally the most attention-seizing – but also the darkest and most disturbing. David Tennant plays against type as a doctor (not to be confused with The Doctor) accused of the rape and murder of his teenage stepdaughter. As his inquisitor matter-of-factly put it: “A 14-year-old girl was found dead in the woods with no knickers and her shattered skull held together with a bag-for-life.”
Prime suspect Tennant starts off blank-faced, stonewalling the investigation by intoning “no comment”. With just two hours until he can be released, there’s a ticking clock to further ratchet up the tension. When he eventually does break his silence, detectives suddenly can’t stop him talking but have to decide if he’s telling the truth.
It’s a finely tuned performance from Tennant – tight, controlled and full of tiny, telling details. There are also a pair of pleasing late twists.
Next in the chair is another illustrious name in Hayley Atwell, who also has fun subverting our expectations. She plays a pink-haired council estate resident accused of poisoning her brother-in-law. Her combative interview become a compelling battle of wits with Hobbs. When the truth finally comes out, it’s a vivid soap opera of a story and surprisingly affecting.
Finally, rising star Youssef Kerkour (who recently displayed his considerable comedy skills in Channel 4 sitcom Home) is heart-wrenchingly sympathetic as a reticent truck driver, described by police as “a good man who made a mistake” as they badger him to help locate a trailer full of Syrian refugees. Another comic stalwart, Kevin Eldon, plays it straight as his solicitor who manages to turn the tables on the detectives in an unexpected way.
The BBC’s cop corruption hit Line of Duty has become renowned for its showpiece interrogation scenes and Criminal is essentially those juicy sequences, supersized over an entire episode.
The similarity is strengthened by an acronym-laden, lingo-heavy script, not to mention the presence of two Line of Duty alumni among the police team here: Rochenda Sandall (who played Lisa McQueen in the most recent series) and Lee Ingleby (shifty husband Nick Huntley in the series before).
These head-to-head duels are breathless, propulsive and hypnotically gripping. It’s skilfully directed and stylishly European in production values, with a haunting electro soundtrack and spare, slate grey decor.
It also provides a fascinating insight into the techniques used by police interviewers: “the Bic trick”, tag-teaming in and out, sending silent signals via scrawled notes or subtle adjustments to the aircon. These detectives prod, probe, bluff and even lie to force their prey’s hand, then pounce on any sniff of blood.
Each episode poses intriguing moral dilemmas for the viewer. Without being shown the crimes or meeting the victims, not even in flashback, our opinions are formed purely on what we see across the table and what the suspects say – which makes assumptions ripe for a rug-pull.
The restricted location and reliance on dialogue mean the action often feels stagey, like a one-act play. Attempts to create a running thread by fleshing out the police team’s relationships – office politics, post-work socialising, workplace affairs, unrequited crushes and competitive jostling to advance their careers – fall a little flat. You find yourself impatient to get back to the main battle of wits.
Despite such flaws, though, Criminal grips, beguiles and keeps you guessing. Now, let’s take a break to regroup. Review concluded.