Bloodhound: Helen Mirren in 'Prime Suspect'
Wren, Celia, Commonweal
In the great video store in heaven, the shelf of Prime Suspect episodes is infinitely long. After all, who could demand more from a television mystery than this steely British police procedural, shot with a lightning-rod attentiveness to detail and atmosphere and show-casing one of our era's great actresses, Helen Mirren? Here on earth, the chronicles of London detective Jane Tennison have numbered all too few: in the decade after its 1992 premiere in England and later America, the series clocked a mere five episodes, following Detective Chief Inspector Tennison's nerve-wracking murder investigations and her excruciating run-ins with misogynistic colleagues. This past April, PBS ponied up a sixth installment, and now the increasingly talked-about cable channel BBC America is re-broadcasting most of the series, starting August 9, as part of its Mystery Mondays lineup. (The whole series is also available on DVD.)
There was an unhappy period in my past--occasioned by my first full-time job after graduate school--when episodes of Prime Suspect provided my only respite from a sea of misery. Fortunately, my life has improved radically since then (a wonderful invention, time!), but I still find Tennison's exploits utterly absorbing, and to judge by the more than fourteen international television awards the program has received, I am far from alone. To credit the performances and the complexity of the characterizations risks stating the obvious. As conceived by the writer Lynda La Plante, Prime Suspect teems with personalities so seemingly genuine that they appear to have waltzed in right off the street. Take such subsidiary characters as the pilot's Moyra Henson, a reputed serial killer's wife played by the creepily pixie-faced Zoe Wanamaker. Shifting from tough-as-nails denunciations of the cops to an eerie, pitiable breakdown in an interrogation room, the actress suggests how effectively humans can will themselves to overlook evil. Or consider episode 3's portraits of Jason and Anthony, two fragile young men who were sexually abused as children: the contrast between the way these overgrown boys speak--one with barely controlled stoicism, his eyes downcast, his lips pursed, the other with a bold stare and an unhinged smirk--speaks volumes about psychological variety, and the different effect one experience can have on two individuals.
And then there's Mirren, who ranges through bravado, vulnerability, annoyance, aggressiveness, and a spectrum of other humors on a second-by-second basis, capturing the hardboiled Tennison's moods and energies with pitch-perfect mannerisms--like her manic, bellicose gum-chewing at a point in the saga when her character has given up smoking. As a strong female struggling along in a man's world, Tennison appeals to feminist instincts, but she is not, to tell the truth, a wholly admirable person. Uncompromising, self-centered, sometimes rude, she can evince a complete disregard for other people's feelings, on one occasion ruining her frail elderly father's birthday party when it happens to coincide with her own appearance on a TV newscast.
Her flaws, shrewdly and subtly highlighted by the program's smart scriptwriters, dovetail with Prime Suspect's pessimistic social vision, with its scrutiny of prostitution, cynical streetkids, pornography, pedophilia rings, and corruption in the police force. …