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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Prime Suspect Complete Collection
Prime Suspect Complete Collection
Acorn Media // Unrated // September 7, 2010
List Price: $124.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Casey Burchby | posted August 31, 2010 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison is an intense, driven, flawed alcoholic who meets sexism and harassment on the job with determination and a sense of political saavy. Not only is she technically shrewd, she is also a fine, highly intuitive detective who feels her way toward the truth, occasionally stumbling over her personal and professional faults - all of which make her one of the most convincing and indelible fictional detectives ever portrayed. Through the seven installments of Prime Suspect, Helen Mirren shapes this complex character, making an equally exorbitant investment in Tennison's self-destructive tendencies and her talent for police work.

This series of seven long, multi-part films, originally broadcast on ITV in the UK and on PBS's Masterpiece Theatre here in the US, comprise no less than some of the finest crime drama ever televised. Although there are traces of the great British traditions of crime fiction here and there, Prime Suspect has a distinctive style marked by a focus on character and dire, bleak atmospherics. Gray skies, concrete police buildings and housing estates, and the fluorescent lights of cheap offices and municipal morgues are the visual signals that tell us we're neck-deep in police work. Yet it's a far more grim and realistic look than the brighter colors of, say, Law and Order.

But the real distinguishing features of all seven series of Prime Suspect are the writing and the acting. Creator Lynda La Plante wrote the first and third installments, establishing the major characters and tone of the show. Tennison is an outsider, a woman working in a man's world, a fact that drives her professional successes just as it contributes to regular flare-ups of her personal flaws. Particularly during the earlier series, Tennison is beset by a variety of forces that plague her career, originating in the criminal world and among her own colleagues. Prime Suspect's second major character, appearing in the first, third, and seventh series, is Tennison's chief antagonist and colleague, Detective Sergeant Bill Otley, played with a cadaverous, withering smarminess by Tom Bell. Sexist, treacherous, and threatened by Tennison's talent, Otley works hard through the first and third series to discredit Tennison, hoping to have her removed from his supervision. Otley's adversarial - and, at times, outright illegal - behavior drives Tennison to further excel at her job - and to drink excessively off-duty. Her relationships with men, at times healthy and at times not, are always short-lived, thanks to her professional commitment and dependence upon booze.

Mirren and Bell are joined by a parade of fine actors in roles both large and small. Tom Wilkinson appears in the first series as Tennison's kind but ultimately defeated boyfriend. Ralph Fiennes is in it as well, but too briefly to merit the placement his name receives on the DVD packaging. The third series alone includes performances by David Thewlis, Ciaran Hinds, Mark Strong, and Jonny Lee Miller. Frank Finlay appears in the last two installments as Tennison's father. In short, much of the first rank of contemporary British actors makes their way through the series at some point.

The storylines of each installment of Prime Suspect are consistently compelling and often genuinely unpredictable, particularly by the standards of the average crime drama. The first series begins with a relatively straightforward rape and murder, but the suspect is anything but usual: when Tennison first catches up with George Marlow (played by John Bowe), his guilt is anything but clear. We are unsure whether Marlow is the killer, or if Tennison's ambition has gotten the better of her. In addition to the usual murder or two, future series attack pressing and touchy social issues such as racism, child prostitution, drugs and gangs, and war crimes stemming from the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. In each case, plots move swiftly and are often ingeniously constructed. Only very occasionally do the machinations of the mystery genre reveal their cogs and wheels.

But the real heart and soul of Prime Suspect is Mirren as Jane Tennison. It's the tension she generates as an unpredictable but brilliant loose cannon that keeps us riveted to each and every minute of this outstanding series. Tennison's flaws - her alcoholism, occasional irrationality, and her struggle with double-edged "female" instincts - keep the character on the fence, hovering between blockbuster success and the danger of failure. We can't always predict that she'll do the right thing - and even when she chooses the proper path, her behavior upon it can be reckless and self-destructive in the pursuit of solving a case, proving a point, or simply spiting antagonistic colleagues such as the intolerant and dangerous Otley. In maintaining our interest in Tennison, her missteps are as important as her wiser maneuvers. They keep her human, plausible, and accessible.


Unlike their first DVD releases from HBO, Acorn has compressed each series of Prime Suspect - each of which vary between three and five hours in length - onto one disc. Each of the seven discs has its own standard-width keepcase and all are housed in a simple card slipcover.

As with most releases from Acorn, the image does not appear to have been touched. Although the production was intended to have a pale, damp look, the transfers of the first five series are downright soggy. The PAL origins of the image can't have helped. They are blurry and just not pleasant to look at. The excellence of the program easily outweighs the transfer factor, and one gets used to this muddy look pretty fast - in a way, it almost adds to the show's atmosphere, albeit in an unintended way. The last two installments of Prime Suspect were produced in 2003 and 2006, respectively, and look markedly better in enhanced transfers. Still, even these are a bit too broken-up for comfort, with over-compressed blacks and iffy detail. Given the scale of this boxed set - and the price - one wishes Acorn had put a little more effort into the visual presentation.

The first four series come with unfussy mono soundtracks, while the final three have equally unfussy stereo tracks. In all cases, the sound is uncluttered and generally clear, although an occasional muffled quality gets in the way of clarity - it sounds like there's a sock over the microphones. The soundtracks are nothing special, but they get the job done with few outright flaws.

Bonus Content
The first five series contain no extras at all. The sixth series includes a short behind-the-scenes featurette (23:21), while the seventh has a longer documentary on a separate disc - Prime Suspect: Behind the Scenes (45:58) - that is more incisive and inclusive, covering the program's whole history. It's a nice retrospective piece.

Final Thoughts

The complex, dark character of Jane Tennison, as portrayed by the incomparable Helen Mirren, makes Prime Suspect one of the finest detective dramas ever produced. Only the lackluster technical presentation prevents me placing this set in the Collector's Series. Still, the show is an absolute must-see. Highly Recommended.

Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.

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