This British police procedural series is incredibly easy to describe: imagine a merging of Prime Suspect with Law & Order, tossing in some stylistic flourishes from 24 and you get Trial & Retribution almost exactly. Created by Lynda La Plante, it's like her earlier success Prime Suspect in that it features a strong but deeply flawed female lead and stories told in long, multi-feature-length episodes. Like Prime Suspect, stories unfold methodically with an incredible attention to detail and with larger social implications of the crime/investigation always biting at the heels of its detectives. Like both Prime Suspect and Law & Order, these investigations are dramatized with an emphasis on graphic and streetwise realism and take cases beyond their investigation, through their prosecution and resolution, where the detectives continue playing a role. Trial & Retribution also employs split-screen effects showing simultaneous action, an effect that later became the American series 24's visual signature. (However, Trial & Retribution debuted in 1997, 24 in 2001.)
I hadn't seen the show prior to reviewing this set, but was so impressed that before I had even finished it I ended up ordering the first several series so I could start catching up. That it emulates Prime Suspect and Law & Order (which itself now has a direct British spin-off, Law & Order: UK) is by no means a bad thing. At its best the series approaches Prime Suspect and is generally superior to the U.S. Law & Order, also a fine series. At its center are two fascinating characters played by Victoria Smurfit and David Hayman. It may have been La Plante's intention to focus primarily on the female lead (Kate Buffery initially starred as the central female character, Detective Inspector Pat North, from 1997-2002; Smurfit replaced her the following year), but while she's extremely interesting, so superb is David Hayman as craggy-faced veteran Detective Chief Superintendent (DCS) Mike Walker that Hayman can't help but dominate the program.
Acorn Media's Set 4 consists of three two-part episodes, each part running about 68 minutes, or approximately 136 minutes per story. Presented in 16:9 enhanced 1.78:1 widescreen, the show looks and sounds great though extras are limited to text biographies and filmographies.
Not really a series per se, Trial & Retribution began in 1997 as an annual event, with one two-part story debuting every year or so until 2007, when five two-parters were produced instead of one. Five more followed in 2008 but that number was reduced to three in 2009 and there have been none since, though more may yet follow. Acorn Media's Set 4 consists of the last three two-parters of the 2007 season, billed as volumes XII, XIII, and XIV: "Paradise Lost," "Curriculum Vitae," and "Mirror Image."
"Paradise Lost" follows the investigation of a serial rapist-murderer of white women, and the consequences following the arrest of one victim's black boyfriend. "Curriculum Vitae" is a deeply disturbing drama about the search for a nanny who may be responsible for the death of the 18-month-old toddler, drowned soon after the baby's mother reluctantly left for a business trip. Recalling the case of Lyle and Erik Menendez, "Mirror Image" has DCS Walker and Detective Chief Inspector Róisín Connor (Smurfit) investigating the murder of a wealthy, respected couple, the focus of their inquiry quickly turning to their spoiled twin sons.
The first thing that surprised me about Trial & Retribution, and which probably throws audiences unfamiliar with Prime Suspect's alcoholic, self-destructive Jane Tennison, is how thoroughly unlikable DCI Connor is. Played with icy precision by Smurfit (About a Boy), Connor is attractive and knows it, looks for sexual relationships as dangerous and intense as her murder investigations, relationships doomed from the start. Like Jane Tennison, Róisín Connor is dedicated and ambitious but also a workaholic clearly addicted to the highs of her investigative work, and so frequently intoxicated by her job that she often leaps to wrong conclusions and oversteps her authority. In "Paradise Lost," for instance, early on she decides the rape-murder victim's boyfriend must be the killer (much circumstantial evidence points to him), becoming so obsessed with extracting a confession she completely ignores his insistence that another man was present the night of the murder. She hounds her suspect to the point where he attempts suicide while in custody. All this leads to a fascinating exploration of racial profiling and Connor's insistence that she's not a racist when, in fact, subtly, she clearly is.
Similarly, DCI Connor exhibits a downright offensive lack of sensitivity toward Suzy MacDonald (Victoria Hamilton), the devastated mother of the murdered infant, partly some kind of passive-aggressive reaction toward Connor's own single and motherless status. As is common with these types of shows, often certain aspects of the investigations parallel conflicts in Connor's personal life, and this is thoughtfully handled here.
However, DCS Mike Walker recognizes Connor's ability and dedication though he's often like a frustrated cowboy trying to tame a horse that refuses to be broken. And as richly layered as Róisín Connor is, Mike is one of those rare television characters that come off 100% authentic, the world-weary, chain-smoking copper done to perfection. Whether it's trying to rein in a victim's impatient boyfriend, who threatens the entire investigation by working independently, or Mike suppressing his own emotions after the murder of a respected colleague, Hayman's rich, understated portrayal commands respect, and his paternal supervision of Connor is intriguing.
Albeit in tiny type, Acorn Media appropriately cautions viewers about the show's graphic scenes. Where programs like CSI offer scientifically accurate reproductions of crime scenes but with a whistling-in-the-graveyard-type dark humor, Trial & Retribution actually shows less technically while being much more disturbing because of its more serious approach. Particularly as the father of a two-year-old, I found "Curriculum Vitae" and its autopsy scene especially extremely upsetting to watch, though dramatically it's justified and never crosses the line into the exploitative.
Video & Audio
Each 135-37-minute episode gets its own single-sided, dual-layered disc, with the show presented in an excellent and apparently unaltered 16:9 enhanced widescreen transfer. The Dolby Digital stereo, English only and accompanied by optional SDH English subtitles, is 2007 state of the art.
The extremely modest extras are limited to abbreviated cast filmographies and a biography of creator Lynda La Plante, along with a fairly good photo gallery.
This is an excellent show with terrific lead performances approaching John Thaw's Inspector Morse, Robbie Coltrane's Fitz in the series Cracker, and, of course, Helen Mirren's Jane Tennison on Prime Suspect; this is no small compliment. Of the three stories, the first is by far the best, though the other two are extremely good also. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.