We Shall Not See Her like Again: Helen Mirren's Swansong as DS Tennison Is Deeply Satisfying to Watch
Billen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)
Prime Suspect: the final act
The papers have given away Prime Suspect's unhappy ending: DS Jane Tennison dies. We won't know how until part two on Sunday (9pm, 22 October)--not even we critics, because ITV has meanly withheld the final 20 minutes from our preview tapes. All we do know--because Helen Mirren, who plays Jane, has said so--is that it is not death by anything so cliched as a bullet. Yet, as Dr Johnson said, it matters not how a man dies, but how he lives, and the first part of this final outing for our most famous female detective after Miss Marple (15 October) examined how the detective superintendent had lived her life. Despite all her commendations in the force, the audit was not a happy one. "I hope," said her smugly married sister, "you got what you wanted from life, I really do."
The fact is that it can be a lifetime's work not becoming the kind of person one hates, and it is not clear whether Tennison has succeeded. Fifteen years ago in Lynda La Plante's original Prime Suspect, Tennison battled on two fronts: in King's Cross with a serial killer and at the cop shop with her Neanderthal comrades. Now it is Tennison who has the drink problem, Tennison who cannot communicate and Tennison who is tired and cynical. Her boss knows her type: "Battered, burnt-out dinosaurs, and what do they do when they leave? They drink themselves to death."
Back in 1991, her worst enemy was DS Bill Otley, a clapped-out copper. On Sunday, he became the only person she could think of to comfort her when her father dies. A veteran of Alcoholics Anonymous, Otley did the 12 Step thing and asked her forgiveness. In what must have been one of his last performances, a visibly ill Tom Bell presented a heart-rendingly bleak vision of personal redemption.
But it is Mirren as Tennison who makes you weep. Her dying dad (Frank Finlay) reprimands her for neglecting the family, but it is her private life that has fallen into ruin. In an early scene she wakes from the amnesiac sleep of the alcoholic to find her bed empty but tousled. In the bathroom the lavatory seat is propped up. Did a man come back with her? Does she recall who he was?
She cannot remember the phone call informing her of the disappearance of 14-year-old Sallie Sturdy, and her conduct of the ensuing murder investigation is befuddled by drink. …