Sunday, February 17, 2019

February's Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman: BODYGUARD -- Sizzle and Fizzle

This Netflix/BBC series created by Jed Mercurio, below (Line of Duty, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Frankenstein), was wildly popular across the pond, making its star, Richard Madden (Game of Thrones, Cinderella, Medici), a widely-speculated replacement for Daniel Craig upon his retirement from the Bond franchise. Madden is said to be in talks about Bond and also in line for another ‘Bodyguard’ series. The part surprised Madden and us with his recent Golden Globe win (‘Best Performance in a TV Series’) for his charismatic policeman in the thriller, having already distinguished himself in romantic roles. A sleeper was his lead in A Promise with Rebecca Hall and Alan Rickman by French director Patrice Leconte. Madden made this tepid historical drama and box-office failure worth viewing. He simply has that something extra that makes you watch and watch. 

The salient feature of Bodyguard is suspense, the kind of heart-in-mouth drama that doesn’t sneak up on cats’ paws but seizes your attention from the very first few minutes of the thriller, making it difficult for the reviewer to spoil the action without in theory spoiling the experience.

Readers of my monthly reviews know I am somewhat cavalier about plot-spoiling — and purposefully, rather than in disregard of the reader/viewer. Good material is not about plot ins-and-outs so much as the journey; great stories are savored not for ‘what happened’ but for the emotional arc the characters experience and the more meaningful truths revealed by the story.

Knowing the plot basics positions one better to think about the characters’ growth, failures, and larger message, rather than having to keep track of the plot mechanics as well as to continue assessing the characters’ ‘interiority’. Hence we revisit Death of a Salesman, Hamlet, The Godfather, etc., over and again to re-experience the characters handling of their travail — glad, in fact, to have the plot basics out of the way. Sometimes a perfect spoil helps the viewer through the twists and turns and into the thought-provoking stuff.

David Budd, our bodyguard, is a nervous-making protagonist to start — a character whose history makes him arresting, above and beyond the police- and-political machinations that drive the series. And Madden, here in his native Scottish accent, compels your attention. He’s reluctantly separated from his wife (Sophie Rundle, lovely actress from Peaky Blinders, The Bletchley Circle, Jamestown), largely it seems as the result of PTSD effects from his military service in Afghanistan — one gathers his erratic, obsessive behavior has made him a problematic partner. Budd, however, has a cool shell that he uses to insulate himself from emotion and direct his obsessive focus to the task-at-hand. Nevertheless his stress leaks constantly, and although we follow with confidence as he disposes of threat after threat, we are nevertheless fearful that one of these moments the tightly-wound Budd will blow. The ‘plot’ consists of crisis piled on crisis providing ongoing anxiety to the viewer who worries for the outwardly strong, inwardly brittle Budd.

Screen-writer Mercurio, himself a physician and a novelist, cleverly makes the mental health issues of his protagonist immediate, but is not as clever at plotting.

The series launches with a near bang as Budd, a police officer traveling off-duty by train with his two kids, confronts a woman passenger, a terrorist wearing a suicide vest, threatening to blow herself up. Budd immediately shifts seamlessly into work mode — and his deft handling of a desperate situation gets him promoted to protecting a prominent politician, Home Secretary Julia Montague, played by Keeley Hawes (below, left, of The Durrells in Corfu and Line of Duty).

Julia Montague is a power player who showboats with a combination of bravado and extreme politics, not as officious as Ted Cruz, but similarly temperamental and difficult, sucking the air out of any situation. She’s a rabid military hawk; one political axe she grinds is a push for more government surveillance of the public to detect and prevent terrorism. (We worked our way in and out of this kind of extreme government intrusiveness in the U.S. following 9/11; terrorism appears to continue as a more immediate threat in Britain.)

Her politics are not only anathema to officer Budd, but annoy the Prime Minister and make the Home Secretary a target for assassination from any number of possible sources. The relationship that develops uneasily between Montague and Budd nevertheless is full of fizz and smolder, causing a rapid rise in tension in the early episodes, only to fizzle out as the series proceeds.

Later other characters are implicated in malfeasance and Mercurio’s closing gambit is so full of implausibilities that it damages the fabric of the whole, despite the terror of the moment remaining relentless.

Budd has wound himself into our own psyches and become so memorable that one doesn’t walk away feeling entirely betrayed by failed plotting, but certainly let down. In the main, Mercurio has satisfied in creating a rather transfixing main character plunked in a scenario that sparks but doesn’t arc.

This is another example of a story that winds itself up brilliantly and fails to climb down off the cliff. It is beyond me why so many good writers fall into this trap — having a satisfying exit plan/resolution is so crucial to the whole. Mercurio’s writing here leans too much on dizzying disposal of characters and complications involving figures in whom we have little emotional investment. It’s gimmicky.

(The limited streaming series that marches beautifully to the richest, most worthy conclusion of any I have watched in recent years is Scott Frank’s brilliantly paced, emotionally satisfying Godless on Netflix, a Western with Jeff Daniels and Brits Jack O’Connell, and Michelle Dockery.)

One hopes Mercurio takes into account the near-unanimous criticism of Bodyguard that accompanied its praise and popularity and digs in more satisfyingly to a few main characters. In plotting a second series, it would complement the whole to include backstory and development of Budd’s relationship with his separated spouse, Vicky, above, left.

The above post was written by our 
monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman.

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