The British mystery series Vera (2011)* is something of a mystery itself. Based on the best-selling "Vera Stanhope" novels of Ann Cleeves, this collection of four movie-length adaptations would seem to have everything going for it. They're slickly produced, overtly emulating the stark, desolate look of the Kenneth Branagh series Wallander. Vera stars Brenda Blethyn, so memorable in Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies, Saving Grace and other films.
And yet Vera is almost a total failure. It's not bad, exactly, just completely undistinguished. There's been a glut of similar British mysteries in recent decades, many excellent, but in today's overcrowded market such shows require extremely clever writing, an original approach, and/or a strong star personality/characterization on which to build a series. Vera, in its present form, is none of those things. Instead, it's just a mélange of components done better elsewhere, and Blethyn's title character isn't appealing or interesting, though her performance is good.
Acorn Media's Vera set includes four 89-minute (not 120-minute) episodes, really self-contained mini-movies. Presented in 16:9 enhanced widescreen (1.78:1), the show is handsomely made with strong Dolby Digital stereo audio. No extras.
Squat, sixty-something Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope (Blethyn) is a grouchy, unmarried, frequently disheveled (complete with Columbo-esque raincoat), heavy-drinking eccentric. She lives and works in Northumberland, the lonely, northernmost coastal ceremonial county in the North East of England, just south of Scottish Borders. Her junior is Detective Sergeant Joe Ashworth (David Leon, The Wild West, RocknRolla, Boy Eats Girl), a thirtyish married man whose offscreen wife in the premiere episode is about to go into labor with their first child.
The four mysteries are, alas, utterly routine, though with a peculiar predilection toward stories involving murdered children and teenagers, and related parent-child tragedies. The first program, "Hidden Depths," is about the investigation of a strangled 15-year-old boy placed in a bathtub ceremonially decorated with flowers and candles. In "Telling Tales," a young woman convicted of murder escapes prison, committing suicide as her estranged father looks on. Vera's investigation suggests the woman might have been innocent after all. In "Crow Trap," the murder of an old acquaintance of Vera's is linked to the disappearance of a young boy years before. In "Little Lazarus," another young boy survives the murder of his mother and his near drowning after falling through the ice of a not-so-frozen pond.
I've read none of Ann Cleeves's original stories (three of the four episodes are direct adaptations), but the television version never gets a handle on Blethyn's no-nonsense character. She's eccentric without ever being distinctive, intriguing, or sympathetic. Watching these shows is like spending time with a surly landlady. Leon's detective sergeant is even less interesting, almost a complete blank of a character. There's barely any tension or affection between the two characters. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis they're not.
Whatever the appeal of Cleeves's books, the TV series all too clearly emulates Wallander with little success or originality. Both are set in bleakly beautiful, sparsely populated rural areas, the kind of places where it's easy to imagine some isolated farmer going mad and hacking his family into little pieces. Both Vera and Wallander are troubled, barely functional department heads that might understandably be mistaken for homeless winos.
But the most blatant parallel is Vera's look, which is nearly identical to Wallander: stylized camera angles, shallow focus even on wide exterior shots, muted colors with rare, dramatic punctuations of primary colors, etc. There's been a trend in recent years toward mysteries with rural settings (e.g., Single-Handed, George Gently) but only Vera adopts a look that's nearly a carbon copy of the much superior Wallander.
The mysteries themselves are overly familiar, playing out in predictable ways: the obvious suspect early on who's completely innocent; the red herring holding back vital information lest others learn about an extramarital affair; the horrifying, last-minute realization that the killer isn't whom the detective and audience have been led to believe, etc. Vera is additionally frustrating because it's often needlessly confusing. It doesn't do a very good job establishing the identities of characters, their personal and geographical relationships to one another, etc.
Of the four shows "Crow Trap" is slightly better than the others, redeeming itself a bit during its climatic scenes, but none are especially memorable nor terribly engrossing. Indeed, I confess to falling asleep at least once watching each and every show. (I went back and rewatched what I had missed.)
Video & Audio
Vera looks great in its 16:9 enhanced widescreen presentation, its stylized cinematography making the Northumberland locations bleak and beautiful at the same time. The four mysteries are presented on four single-sided discs, each of which includes a brief episode summary. The Dolby Digital stereo is excellent, up to contemporary television standards; several episodes have exceptionally good musical scores. Optional English subtitles are especially helpful in this case. Blethyn's muttering-style delivery (think Popeye with a Geordie accent) is almost impenetrable at times. No Extra Features.
I didn't care much for Vera but I'm intrigued enough that I plan on sticking with it, hoping it'll improve over time. (The third and fourth episodes are slightly better than the first two.) A second series has been announced. In the meantime, Rent It.
* A new series of episodes has been announced for 2012.
Stuart Galbraith IV's audio commentary for AnimEigo's Tora-san, a DVD boxed set, is on sale now.