Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. Like a Shakespearian tragedy wrapped around a Dickensian serial, and fitted into a modern soaper framework, Chancer: Series 2 surpasses the first season, deepening the emotional impact of con man Derek Love's odyssey through a rapidly crumbling 1990s England, and his devastating personal journey through true, real love - and absolute, final loss. Starring the hypnotic Clive Owen, Chancer: Series 2 is flat-out one of the best British serials I've ever encountered.
Now I've written before about the first season ("series" in Britain) of Chancer (please click here to read my review), and considering what a beautifully constructed and written piece it was, I was somewhat leery of a continuation. But as fans of the first series know, there had to be a resolution to the Derek Love saga, and viewers get it here in Chancer: Series 2. With a vengeance.
Again, as with the first season review, the plot machinations and endless double-and-triple crosses that abound in Chancer: Series 2 are too enjoyable to spoil here, so I'll try to be brief (there may be spoilers unacceptable to you in the following, so be forewarned). Derek Love (Clive Owen), a.k.a. "Stephen Crane," having turned himself in for fraud at the end of series one, is now doing time in one of Her Majesty's prisons. Obsessed with winning back the gorgeous Joanna Franklyn (Susannah Harker), whom Derek deeply hurt when he put her love against her father's sadistic offer of employment or punishment in a coin toss, Derek can't face the fact that Joanna has irrevocably moved on with her life. She loves him, but she's terrified of that love, and wants nothing to do with his constant lies and scams.
Getting out of jail, Derek joins up with romantic rival Piers Garfield-Ward (Simon Shepherd), whose country estate is in jeopardy after he failed to claim his peerage. Derek's dodgy, but still legal, idea is to turn the estate into a casino, earning enough cash to pay the taxes and set up the family for life. Naturally, Derek thinks of asking former boss Jimmy Blake (Leslie Phillips) for a list of "whales" who might want to gamble there, but of course, Jimmy the Snake isn't going to help Derek, whom he loathes, because Jimmy is an investor in The Syndicate, a gambling co-opt headed up by none other than Joanna's father, the evil, perversely vindictive Tom Franklyn (Peter Vaughan).
True loss comes to Derek, however, when Joanna, the love of his life, is accidentally killed. A custody battle ensues for Joanna's baby, Joseph, between Piers, who assumes he's the father, and Tom, who views the child as his property and sole heir. Further complicating matters is the fact that Anna (Louise Lombard), a petty thief with a dark past, was present at Joanna's death, with Tom out for blood to pin the death on her. Naturally, Anna and Derek join forces against Tom, further complicated by Anna's connection to Jimmy Blake, with the series reaching a devastating, emotionally charged climax for our hero Derek.
There's an intricate delicacy to the scripting of Chancer: Series 2 (by Guy Andrews and Simon Burke) that in no way blunts the rather florid excesses of the Dickensian plot lines (and like Dickens, there's social commentary, as well, with Chancer's plot lines directly tied with criticism of the decay of England's once-dynamic economy, and its "jumble sale" existence as a tourist destination). On the contrary, the seeming clash between the fruity, pulpy plot convolutions, and the surprisingly witty and emotional dialogue, only further adds a strange, attractive layer to this delicious series. Some reviewers have likened Chancer to American soaps like Dallas and Dynasty (perhaps due to the same time period when this was running), and while I'm an unabashed fan of both those soapers, Chancer: Series 2 has an elegant fluidity to its construction and language that you won't find in the more common American counterparts. Dallas and Dynasty provide harsh, base jolts of unadulterated melodrama; the storylines may be twisty, but they follow in a linear tit-for-tat crudity (and so much the better, too, for that energy).
Chancer: Series 2, however, has a genuine wit and style, a gracefulness of both structure and language that bumps up nicely against the complicated revenge models. Whenever the incomparable Leslie Phillips ("Hello!") arrives in a scene, we anticipate a juicy yet acidic bon mot, and we're never disappointed. On the opposite end, whenever the malevolent, bear-like Peter Vaughan enters, we expect a sly, yet crushing brutality to his machinations. And again, the series delivers a seemingly endless array of clever tricks and shadow plays to illustrate its perverse delight in constantly pulling the rug out from under the audience's expectations. Chancer: Series 2 really is a rather sadistic series; not in content, but in its delight in constantly peeling away the veneer of what seems to be nothing more than a rollicking good yarn, full of double-dealing and romance, and showing us genuine depth, and pain, and inexplicable human emotions, and total loss that lies beneath this ostensibly slick entertainment. Every time we're set up to enjoy what we think will be a conventional double-cross or confrontation between two warring parties, bent on mutual destruction, the writers show a vulnerable side to the combatants (while pulling out yet another subplot that further connects and complicates the duo's relationship), which constantly brings up the viewer short, making it necessary to re-evaluate the dynamics of any given sequence, on virtually a scene-by-scene basis. As such, Chancer: Series 2 is incredibly dense for "just" a serial.
In addition to all the dark, dirty dealings between the lead characters in this second series of Chancer, there's a quasi-supernatural element added, with Derek communing with Joanna's ghost, who enigmatically appears to offer guidance (or confusion) depending on the situation. Such a device can often come off as contrived and even silly, but here, it works well because I'm not convinced it's really a "ghost" that Derek is speaking with. Sure, they use Susannah Harker again as Joanna, but my read of her scenes with Derek are that Derek is wrestling with his own memory of Joanna, not some kind of ectoplasmic entity. Derek was so connected with Joanna, so deeply in love with her, that it's entirely plausible that he would already know her true feelings concerning the matters they later discuss. And this desire for the impossible (to have her alive again) and eventual release of Joanna from his memory is entirely keeping with the grieving process Derek would certainly undergo. Those who liken Chancer: Series 2 with Twin Peaks miss the more subtle use of Joanna's so-called "ghost."
Enough credit can't be given to Clive Owen for his portrayal of Derek Love. I'm not surprised the series instantly catapulted him into the front ranks of British actors. The Love character has to mature through a surprisingly heavy series of transformations, and Owen is wonderfully open and responsive to the demands of the character. What are Derek's true motives for his actions? Greed? Altruism? Vanity? Excitement? All and none of those are true, depending on the specific scene. You're never quite sure how Owen is going to deliver a line reading (much like you're never quite sure how a particular scene is going to play out), bringing an emotional resonance to the character that's quite something to see (the final, devastating scene, where Derek, bereft of everything, walks away in the ran with his child in his arms, is incredible). And as with the first series, the supporting players give some of the best moments in their careers. Vaughan and Phillips are simply brilliant as the scheming, money-grubbing bankers, and newcomer to the series Louise Lombard brings a heated, dewy, dark brunette allure to her complicated role as Anna. Only the ill-advised inclusion of Anna's psycho ex-lover, played by the talented Michael Kitchen, throws off the necessarily problematic dynamics of the cast. But that's a minor quibble for one of the most entertaining, intelligent British serials I've ever seen.
Here are the 7, one-hour episodes of the two-disc box set Chancer: Series 2, as described on their slimcases:
Released from prison and casting aside his Stephen Crane alias, Derek Love immediately begins searching for his former love, Jo. But she flees to Pier's country estate with her baby and is joined by her newfound friend Anna, a woman on the lam herself.
Assuming that he is baby Joseph's father, Piers prepares to battle Franklyn for custody of the child. Meanwhile, Dex enlists Anna to help scam Franklyn's newly opened casino, but Anna has her own designs on the money.
In an attempt to raise funds to refurbish Winterleigh, Dex and Piers hatch a plot to turn the estate into a private gambling club. First, though, they need a list of well-heeled patrons - which they aim to get from Franklyn's casino by any means necessary.
Anna finds a series of Nativity drawings, possibly by Albrecht Durer. Selling them might finance further work on Winterleigh, but their provenance remains mysterious. Meanwhile, Dex antagonizes the estate's former caretaker - with disastrous results.
With money and membership records stolen from Franklyn, Winterleigh's gambling club gets off to a smashing start, and Franklyn vows revenge. Then, just as the results of baby Joseph's paternity test come in, Anna uncovers Jo's long-lost letter revealing the child's true father.
Roman, Anna's ex-lover, secures his release from an African prison and begins tracking her down, bent on vengeance. And, with bankers threatening to pull financing for Franklyn's proposed industrial park, the embattled businessman bargains for Dex's help.
Having already kidnapped Jimmy Blake, Roman abducts baby Joseph, taking Anna with him. After asking for ransom, Roman phones Dex, saying ominously, "Come to the Holy City - alone. You can be Abraham. I'll be God."
The full screen video image for Chancer: Series 2 doesn't look much better than the first season. It's dark at times, faded and washed out at others, with grain and video noise apparent. But with a show like this, that needn't be a deal-breaker.
The Dolby Digital English mono mix is only adequate; subtitles and captions would have helped with the inconsistent levels.
There are no extras for Chancer: Series 2.
High Shakespearean tragedy, coupled with Dickensian social commentary and intricate, multi-character relationships, fitted into a melodramatic, punchy soap opera, make for a most unusual, satisfying British serial in Chancer: Series 2. There's an emotional delicacy to the witty, pulpy scripts, and the cast, headed by the magnetic Clive Owen, is phenomenal. On content alone, Chancer: Series 2 is worthy of our highest rating here at DVDTalk: the DVD Talk Collector Series. However, since there are zero extras, and the transfers could have been better, I'm going to give Chancer: Series 2 a Highly Recommended, and urge you seek out this fine drama series; it's one of the best of its kind I've ever seen.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.