Review: Quirke (S1 E1/3), Sunday 25th May

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So let’s get this straight. This new three-part drama – adapted from the novels by John Banville (written as Benjamin Black) by Andrew Davies and Conor McPherson – stars Gabriel Byrne and Sir Michael Gambon. That means both in front and behind the camera there’s some serious talent. It has already aired in Ireland (on RTE One) and it has been sold around Europe. So everything – EVERYTHING – is suggesting this should be a roaring success.  

The first scenes were incredibly good looking. As someone who loves the 1950s and the film noir style, it was all dark streets and shadows and Trilbys and hard, incessant rain. There was some beautiful cinematography on show, or at least to my eyes. It had the same dark, lacquered feel as the excellent movie The Road To Perdition.

As for the characters, Quirke himself – a Dublin consultant pathologist – is a wry, quietly spoken man with an air of insouciance about him. Actually not just insouciance. We soon learn his wife died, so he has the slight devil-may-care attitude who doesn’t give a damn about life anymore. If Quirke has a hangdog resignation about life and the pain it can bring, his brother, Mal, is a neatly turned out, wound-up coil of a man. The type of man who’s jealous of a brother who has always got the girls and the breaks in life. The type of man who’s had to work harder, much harder, than his brother to gain his father’s attention, even though Quirke was taken from an orphanage and adopted. That kind of anger and rejection underwrites everything Mal did in this episode – from his constant scowl to his teeth-grinding bubbling inner anger. Add to this a frisson between Quirke and Mal’s wife Sarah (played by Garaldine Somerville, luminous in this grey palette with her red hair and gorgeous 50s couture). Just what a man with gallons of suppressed rage needs.

This first, feature-length episode painted out Mal to be a villain and a deeply flawed man. His step-brother Quirke is also a flawed man, and as we get deeper into the story we learned of falsified histories, hidden children and tales of illegal adoptions.

All throughout the episode I noticed some interesting framing by director John Alexander – there were lots of slightly off-kilter shots, framed from above so we looked down on the characters, as if we were observing them spilling their secrets.

But let’s get back to the story, because there were secrets aplenty. The more Quirke dug into the deaths of two women, he (and we) were taken from Dublin to Boston and into the shadowy world of illegal adoptions, rule-breaking orphanages and revelations over the true parentage of Quirke’s niece, Phoebe. An Irish drama about strict, Catholic orphanages with stern and sinister nuns and illegal activities and abuse? Yes, we’ve seen it many times in crime dramas and crime novels and handled incorrectly we could have lapsed into stereotype territory here. But these social issues in Ireland in the 1950s are such emotionally affecting subjects that it bears repeated exploration in the right hands and in this case, the issues were about Quirke himself – he was essentially investigating his own family history without knowing it.

This was engrossing stuff, if a little on the over-long side. The acting was of the highest order from a stellar cast – how can you knock Gabriel Byrne, Sir Michael Gambon and Geraldine Somerville? Add into the mix some sumptuous noir photography and an enjoyable turn by Stanley Townsend as the laconic Inspector Hackett, and Quirke is a very decent, dark and intriguing watch.

The noir genre seems to have a set of rules that can often be constricting and suffocating (see Mob City, which promised so much but delivered so little), but this felt different. All the markers were there and the style certainly was, but this focus was firmly on the twisted family story.

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