This new four-part series – penned by Kate Baxendale – stars Anne-Marie Duff as an ex-copper who left it all behind to go and live a peaceful new life in the Western Isles of Scotland. British crime drama, especially, seems to have split into two factions these days – the light, traditional procedural and the the Scandinavian, psychological version. The latter is darker, both in palette and subject matter, and From Darkness, as the name suggests, has its feet firmly planted in the Scandi-style camp. Which is all well and good, but there’s a real sense now that this burgeoning, fairly new sub-genre has its own set of rules, conventions and now clichés. Rules, conventions and clichés that From Darkness almost gleefully ticks off as it goes along.
Everything familiar on the Scandi-style checklist were there in the opening scenes: haunting theme song, bleak, remote landscapes… so far so Scandi. And then we meet Claire Church: a woman who had lived a previous life as a police officer; a life that had caused her to move out of her urban setting to somewhere isolated; a life that still caused her to wake up in the middle of the night, struggling to breath. Claire likes to run and swim, around and in the bubbling, glorious loch by her home. We’ve seen this in Hinterland and Safe House recently, where its main characters engage in some heavy metaphorical physical activity – running to run away from something; swimming because water provides a womb of safety.
Living in this beautiful Scottish community with her husband Norrie and her daughter Megan, her healing reverie is broken by DCI John Hind, played by Johnny Harris. He’s one of those excellent, underrated character actors who plays menacing very, very well. When you watch Harris in action you always get the impression his characters are about to explode at any time with a pure rage that simmers below the surface (things certainly did in This Is England), and Hind is no different.
He’s in Manchester, where construction workers have unearthed the remains of a woman, which Hind instinctively links back to a spate of missing persons cases back in the late 90s. He knows who he needs get in touch with – Claire Church.
So he takes his comically timid partner off go up to the Western Isles to ask for Claire’s help. “You sure you don’t want to dry off, you seem a bit cold,” says Hind as Claire walks through the door, post-swim. There’s obviously some history between the two, although that’s not revealed fully until towards the end of the episode. Claire, on seeing Hind again, rushes upstairs and necks a couple of pills to take the edge of her panic.
But the next time we see all of them – Claire and her family – it’s in the local club, laughing and drinking. Hind is skulking in the corner with the fidgety DS Boyce wondering what was going on. He wasn’t the only one. As the episode wore on Claire’s interaction with Hinds was almost schizophrenic And this was one of my main problems with From Darkness – its set-up was uneven and interaction between these two characters was difficult to get a handle on. One minute Claire was fine with Hind, laughing and joking. The next she wasn’t, to the extent she would have panic attacks. I get there’s still a lot of history between the two, which has bred a level of comfort, but her reactions to Hinds and what he represented (a past life) lurched too uncomfortably between two extremes.
Another slight problem I had with From Darkness was the victim of the cold case. My heart sank a bit when it was revealed that the initial find on the building site was the body of a prostitute who, confirmed post-mortem reports, was tortured before she was murdered. This find was linked to several other prostitutes, who went missing around the same time and a line of enquiry that Claire had been involved in. Back in the 90s she had befriended a group of prostitutes and had tried to convince Hind that these women, who had started to go missing, had been murdered. He and his colleagues hadn’t listened.
Yes, another group of vulnerable young women, murdered horribly.
It was all a bit familiar, too familiar, and as the story started to open up (Claire’s relationship with her family, Hind’s relationship with his wife) nothing really changed that feeling. In fact there was a sense of ‘here we go again’.
What kept me watching were the performances of Anne-Marie Duff (who’s always worth a watch) and some bravura scenes. One of them saw Hind and Claire inside a road-side cafe. Hind had spent the episode trying to entice her back into the case, leaving case files in her bag and bringing her back down to Manchester for a formal interview (another good scene, the juxtaposition between urban and rural stark). As they faced off and Claire told him everything she knew about the case of the missing prostitutes, she revealed that when she was due to meet one of them – the same one whose trussed remains were found on the building site – she had been in bed with Hind. All heavy exposition, but a compellingly uncomfortable conversation nonetheless.
I also had a problem with the direction. Actually, not necessarily a problem because the Western Isles, in particularly, were shot beautifully. It was the amount of the kind of shots of the Western Isles (on top of the off-kilter framing of its characters) that was starting to bug me. It’s all very well trying to go for a look, but there’s a problem when the arty mise-en-scène starts to overpower the pace, the dialogue and the story. Continual arty shots do not a good drama make.
But the final scene – in which the killer struck again, leaving Claire’s old police number scrawled on a bit of paper placed on the body – set things up nicely for the next episode. In its eagerness to position itself firmly in the Scandi-style sub-genre From Darkness was far from perfect, but as the killer is again active and now leaving messages to Claire, I’m hoping this first episode was the deep breath before the plunge.