Here we go then. Back to the Jurassic coast and the small coastal town of Broadchurch, where DI Alec Hardy and DS Ellie Miller are back on the beat, investigating their last case. Thanks to a phenomenal first series, this British show has become a real heavy-hitter in the crime drama world – its almost Scandinavian-style mixture of a classic whodunit mixed with emotional, personal stories elevated it above many of its contemporaries. If the second series failed to build on the first series’ quality, this third series – after a long break where so much has happened on television since – has its work cut out to still remain relevant. Thankfully, Chris Chibnall, David Tennant and Olivia Colman are back on top form.
NB: Spoilers ahoy!
One of my main problems with series two was the need to go back to the Latimer story, and the fact that the ongoing Joe Miller court case was shoehorned into the Lee Ashworth story. There just seemed to be too much going on and there was a feeling that it was uneven; the kitchen sink being thrown at it. Yes, Miller and Hardy were still a hugely watchable and likeable police pairing, but the stories were competing with each other until it reached stalemate.
If series two was just too much, the start of this third series was a stark contrast. A middle-aged woman was shaking, dazed and confused at the side of the town’s quay. She was silent with tears welling in her eyes as the police edged their way towards her; DS Ellie Miller came into view and straight-away showcased that depth of empathy and feeling we’ve come to know so well. The woman’s name was Trish (played by immense sensitivity by Julie Hesmondhalgh, who’s a very fine actress), and she had been sexually assaulted. DI Alec Hardy loomed into view, showing restraint and care. They carefully took Trish away, and the process of extracting vital DNA and personal information started. ITV and the producers had made it clear that Chris Chibnall went the extra mile when it came to research for this story, and these first scenes left you in no doubt that this was the case – the first 25 minutes or so was almost documentary-like in its attention to detail, procedure and pacing. Liaison officers comforted Trish, Miller and Hardy spoke calmly and held her hand as she was carefully swabbed and examined (which always seems to me to be such a huge ordeal – the white coats, the mouth swabs, the vaginal examinations – for someone who has already been violated in the most heinous way). It was extremely difficult to watch and very, very well acted.
“Do you believe me?” asks Trish. Hardy answered yes, quickly and emphatically. But a naturally shocked Trish is struggling to remember details and the wounds she exhibits aren’t fresh. After she returns home, it’s established that she went to a friend’s birthday party three days before, and that was where the attack took place. Inspection of the site garnered a used condom wrapper, and some dried blood. Initial forensic reports found blue twin in Trish’s wrist wounds. Hardy knew it, Miller knew it: this was a pre-meditated attack.
So we were off and running, but what was different about this initial salvo from Broadchurch was that it didn’t feel like Broadchurch. And I mean that as a compliment. For the first half an hour it was pretty much Trish, Hardy and Miller, as the survivor revealed little by little details of her ordeal and the two policewomen edged their way around her house and then each other’s approaches to the case – Miller and Hardy still bickered like an old married couple.
It was only the last 20 minutes or so of this first episode that we began to be introduced to the peripheral players – we saw the Latimers and how they had moved on from their own tragedy (Beth was now working for a crisis centre and was charged with liaising with Trish, Mark had written a book and was still suffering (as was their marriage) and Chloe had had her own child; Trish’s best friend Cath Atwood (Sarah Parish), who hosted the birthday party where Trish was attacked; surly farm shop manager Ed Burnett (Lenny Henry); and DC Katie Harford (Georgina Campbell), who was a rookie and learning emotional dimensions to investigations from Miller. There was also mechanic Jim Atwood (Mark Bazely), who was presented as an early suspect – we saw the same ripped condom wrappers in his car Miller and Hardy had found at the crime scene. We also saw how Ellie and her son Tom were coping after Joe’s case – Ellie was called into school because Tom had been caught watching porn. “You’re not your father’s son!” she yelled at him in the car on the way home.
So although the first three acts of this first episode were all about Trish and then an investigation of a location, it settled down into its groove and into classic whodunit territory. Beats were hit precisely; cliffhangers were set-up skilfully. But what really interested me was that beginning segment; that sombre, sensitive portrayal of the aftermath of Trish’s attack. I wonder why Chibnall chose to do that. I think it might be a comment on the very genre he has been such a major part of for the past five years, and a comment on how violence against women in crime drama is portrayed. There has been such a debate on where the line between necessarily violent and gratuitous lies in recent months, that Chibnall seems to have contributed by wilfully charting the almost dull, sterile and neutral procedure of investigating a survivor after an attack. It’s unglamorous, heartbreaking and silent except for the stretch of gowns and the opening and closing of plastic pots and receptacles. By doing this Chibnall has, I think, scaled everything back in a way that many crime dramas don’t (or won’t), to show what the experience is really like for survivors of rape and sexual assault – the perceived shame, the ignominy of examination. This took guts on his part.
And this approach contributed to a brilliant first episode. Tense, harrowing and skillfully acted and constructed (as well as a healthy sprinkling of Millerisms – “This isn’t Trumpton,” she snapped at Hardy after he asked whether many of these attacks take place in the town; “Alright, I drove over. Don’t be a twat about it,” she chided after she turned up on Hardy’s doorstep at 2am in the morning after a phone call from Trish, which revealed more details about her attack), it’s safe to say that Broadchurch was back on form.
For all our Broadchurch news and reviews, go here