The British have something of a tradition of producing fine detective drama, often for television. The long running ITV show Inspector Morse is one such example that has spawned a couple of spinoffs, including the film being discussed here: Endeavor.
Intended as a standalone film, and as a sort of pilot for a new Morse related series, Endeavor serves as a prequel to its parent show. Set in the sixties, it follows Endeavor Morse as a young detective working on his first big case. It seems that young Mary Tremlett has gone missing from an exclusive school in Oxford (what would be equivalent to a private girls high school in the US), and a number of police personnel have been called in to assist with the investigation, including Morse (Shaun Evans) and his friend McLeash (Jack Ashton).
Being quite junior, Morse and McLeash are assigned to relatively minor tasks by the skeptical Sgt. Lott (Danny Webb). Of course, the analytical and quirky Morse can't help himself but go off and start nosing down a few paths of inquiry that he wasn't strictly ordered to. He goes and talks to Mary's family and looks through her bedroom, noticing something odd about the poetry books she keeps at her bedside, with partially filled in crossword puzzles used as bookmarks. His investigations are knocked off track a bit when he is directed to look into the apparent suicide of a young man, Miles Percival (Harry Kershaw), who nevertheless may have a connection to the missing young woman.
Soon enough, Morse starts to make waves with his inquiry, which include questioning an Oxford don Dr. Stromming (Richard Lintern), his beautiful wife, former opera singer Rosalind (Flora Montgomery), and a rather shady car dealer. Though Sgt. Lott derides Morse's supposed information, and perhaps even Morse himself, Inspector Thursday (Roger Allam) is intrigued enough to allow the fledgling detective to continue. The investigation takes a circuitous route, moving from sex clubs using underage girls, to high government ministers, to police corruption, to blackmail. The mystery itself is put together quite well, making it difficult (to this reviewer at least) to guess the culprit until near the end.
Of a piece with the considerations of the central mystery, the film itself is tightly plotted, with each scene flowing smoothly to the next, the viewer never left confused or bored or rushing to catch up. The characters are sharply defined, yet never descend to stereotypes. Evans is very graceful and effortless as the socially awkward, yet brilliant, young detective, who can't yet decide whether he actually wants to continue on with all of this crime solving business. All the other actors put in their bit as well, with even smaller characters carefully crafted and woven neatly into the narrative. The film utilizes a great number of practical sets, which lend a great solidity to things, aided by the solid characterizations and fine performances. The writing is agile and sharp, and the themes interlaced with the tale are powerful without being overbearing or ham fisted.
In short, Endeavor is simply a cracking good mystery. It easily meets the minimum requirements of the genre by providing an intriguing riddle to be solved, which is subtle and difficult (but not too difficult) to work out, and then it keeps on ladling more and more great stuff on top. The audience happily goes for the ride, and the film is blissfully free of any jarring twists, awkward dialogue or other nonsense. The tone is kept just right, with the tiniest hint of humor, which never detracts from the focused crime solving momentum. This is a fine piece of work, and one looks forward expectantly to the new series. Highly recommended.