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Muscular Mysteries and Acting: I Love this Series
on August 16, 2014
VERA, Set 4. (2011- ) This is a new, contemporaneously set British television series made by ITV. The British mystery series/police procedural, in its 2014 fourth season, returned to record ratings in the United Kingdom. The series has aired in the United States on PBS channels. It is based on the best-selling mysteries of British author Ann Cleeves, and like her work, is set in the extreme northeast of England, Geordie-land, just under the Roman-built Hadrian's Wall, which separates England from Scotland.
The production stars two-time Oscar® nominee Brenda Blethyn (LITTLE VOICE, SECRETS AND LIES, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, ATONEMENT) as DCI Vera Stanhope, a solitary, obsessed, caustic investigator with a messy persona and private life. She's 40 pounds overweight, a bit disheveled; dresses for comfort and warmth --think female Columbo -- in the brutal Northumberland winters. It is available streaming or in a boxed set that includes four feature-length, character-driven crime dramas on four discs, runs 370 minutes. For mature audiences. A photo gallery comes as an extra. And thank you, RLJ Entertainment-Acorn, it's got subtitles: otherwise don't know what we'd do with the local accent on this side of the pond. I received this as a review copy.
Stanhope pursues the truth in the cases of murder, kidnapping, and blackmail that occur on her patch of Geordie-land. She's driven by her own demons; fails to follow the rules of proper nutrition; hides her loneliness well; drinks more than she ought. We're told she lost her mother as a young child, was raised by a distant father, is estranged from her only sister. She's a complex character: a brilliant, independent cop with a dumb private life; a character that undoubtedly requires an actress of Blethyn's skill. In addition to her sidekick Detective Sergeant Joe Ashworth, as played by David Leon, who characterizes his part with an odd, bowlegged walk, as if he were malnourished as a child and had rickets, she's supported in the cop shop by Paul Ritter and Jon Morrison. The episodes are, to quote RLJ/Acorn:
EPISODE 1: On Harbour Street
Stanhope investigates the stabbing death of a senior citizen aboard a crowded rush-hour train—and learns that the chief witness to the woman's killing is Ashworth's young daughter. The case takes the detectives to a tightknit community in the quiet coastal town where the victim lived and where, Stanhope suspects, the killer knew her well.
EPISODE 2: Protected
When a young man is beaten to death along the seafront at a popular resort, Stanhope wonders why he was there rather than at his father's retirement party. Suspicion falls on a local arcade owner with a grudge against the father. However, the inspector believes the answers may lie with the deceased's own family—the domineering patriarch, stepmother, underachieving brother, and a sister who appears not to have had contact with the others for years.
EPISODE 3: The Deer Hunters
Two local poachers are shot at and their truck torched—while less than a mile away, a man recently returned to the area is killed with a single round from a hunting rifle. The gamekeeper from the nearby estate denies involvement in the incidents, and Stanhope and Ashworth keep all their options open as they enter a world dominated by rural tradition and life on the moors.
EPISODE 4: Death of a Family Man
Was the dead body found in a local river a case of suicide or murder? The victim was a successful businessman who was supposed to be on a business trip to Dublin. The waters muddy further when Stanhope and Ashworth discover that other law-enforcement authorities are interested in the man and that there was more to his family life than met the eye.
I love this series, loved Set 3, which I reviewed on its website in these pages, and have got to manage somehow to double back to Sets 1 and 2. These powerful free-standing episodes have been filmed in the original villages of the Cleeves crime novels; the bleak, lonely landscapes of Northumberland, a region of the U.K. that has traditionally suffered, and still does, from underemployment, look beautiful here. The mysteries are muscular, and so, uniformly, is the acting, with particular praise due Blethyn, who has created a very strong yet vulnerable character. The stories are dark and realistic, dealing with middle and lower class people, in contrast to most glossy American cop shows, female-centered or not. In further contrast to the female leads of most American TV cop shows, Vera's not young, pretty, sexy or well-dressed. She doesn't have a husband, or a lover, and doesn't seem interested in getting one. She doesn’t have a social or family life and doesn’t seem interested in getting one. She's interested in getting her perps, man or woman, and she does.