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Murder on the Home Front

PBS // Unrated // April 15, 2014
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted April 2, 2014 | E-mail the Author
London, 1940. Dr. Lennox Collins (Patrick Kennedy) is one of the world's first forensic scientists, and newly assigned to help the local police solve murder cases after the war effort robs the department of their usual guy. His first case is one of a string of killings, women found strangled and a swastika carved in their tongues. Shortly after arriving at the first crime scene, Dr. Collins runs into Molly Cooper (Tamzin Merchant), a reporter trying to get the scoop on the body. Dr. Collins is immediately taken with her constitution in the face of gruesome violence, her typing skills, and her overall wit and charisma, and hires her as his assistant. With the help of crime photographer Issy Quennell (Emerald Fennell), morgue tech Charlie Maxton (Richard Bremmer), and skeptical detectives Wilkins (David Sturzaker) and Brady (Iain McKee), the pair follow a trail of evidence that leads them to The Metropol Club and several suspicious inhabitants.

A strong cast helps elevate "Murder on the Home Front" from a passable wartime mystery to firmly above-average entertainment. This 90-minute special, based on memoirs of Molly Lefebure, seems like an attempt to launch a series of Collins and Cooper mysteries. Although this debut chapter doesn't do anything particularly groundbreaking or even memorable in terms of mystery thrillers or even mismatched co-workers, there's enough charm in the ensemble gathered here to hope that the same gang of actors gets a chance to tackle an edgier and more involving screenplay in a follow-up episode.

Some would argue America stole "Sherlock" in the form of "Elementary", so it's funny how much "Murder on the Home Front" feels like a riff on "Elementary". Eccentric obsessive lures a woman from her current job to the more thrilling world of murder investigation? Seems awfully familiar, right down to the way in which Kennedy and Merchant's chemistry functions, with Cooper helping to soften Collins' unflagging attention to detail, as well as providing additional insight. This, plus the cop (Sturzaker) who slowly comes around to Collins' unconventional methods, and it's almost like watching that episode of a sitcom inexplicably set in another era. To say it borrows this structure does mean even the good parts are just as unoriginal as the bad ones, but charm is charm, and Merchant, in particular, has it in spades. Cooper's particular blend of drive and earnestness is often over-emphasized by actors to the point of obnoxiousness, but Merchant's read is nicely restrained without dulling any of the character's natural energy. In addition to a nice rapport with Kennedy, she's also great with Fennell, who hit the clubs one night and go undercover the next.

The one aspect of "Murder" that feels a little unique is the wartime backdrop. One of the suspects (Patrick Knowles) is a defector working to crack codes, and another is a soldier on leave (Jake Curran). Air raid sirens are constantly going off, forcing the investigation to pause while everyone heads into underground shelters. Collins hopes to convey to the detectives the importance of not disturbing a crime scene, but this proves to be challenging when he and Cooper return to a building and find it's been blasted to bits. In terms of bureaucracy, the higher ups express concern as to whether or not Collins and Cooper's investigation serves the greater good in terms of the British effort against the Germans, or just general morale, and there is an undercurrent of racism toward the Germans. Admittedly, none of this is deeply integrated into the story beyond providing an added element of danger or complication, but it gives the show a specific flavor. The case also leads to a gay man afraid to be outed, but the disgust expressed by everyone except the protagonists is clunkier.

The aspect where the show comes up short, unfortunately, is the mystery itself, which seems to come down to one piece of evidence that is conveniently lost and then returned with no apparent explanation. So little of the eventual solution is based on the evidence Collins and Cooper investigate beforehand, and the show offers up red herrings in a way that it's obvious which ones aren't the killer. Worse, the suspense sequence in the last 20 minutes is almost entirely predicated on Cooper suddenly acting like a complete idiot, which is particularly frustrating given how compelling a character she is throughout the rest of the episode. For the most part, "Murder on the Home Front" is fun, but most of that stems from the people chosen to execute it rather than the material they've been given.

The Blu-Ray
I always wonder why most studios have stopped taking posed photos of the cast in costume for Blu-Ray and DVD art -- at least they can Photoshop that image into something interesting. It figures that "Murder on the Home Front" would do such a thing, and it'd look remarkably boring, thanks to the complete lack of any lighting effects or a particularly noticeable backdrop. This one-disc Blu-Ray comes in a Viva Elite case, with an insert advertising other PBS programming tucked inside.

The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 1080i AVC, "Murder" has one overwhelming video flaw, which is heavy, heavy black crush. I have no idea why a technician thought this level of darkness was appropriate, but in one of the first nighttime street shots, hardly anything is even visible. Black levels remain pervasive during bright daytime scenes, but the viewer is more able to take in the crisp details and vibrant colors. It's a remarkably distracting presentation, pushing right past moody and into murky, and it's really disappointing since it seems like something that would be so easy to fix.

Sound is a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack which sounds quite full and vivid for a stereo mix. Since the show is set during the London Blitz, there's quite a bit of war action to activate the side channels, including a number of bombings and a couple of explosions, experienced inside a range of environments. Much of the program also takes place inside a hopping nightclub with a great, lively band, which is vibrant and well-balanced. Unlike the picture, there are no blatant deficiencies here. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are also included.

The Extras
Only one minor extra is included: a featurette (6:01, HD), made up of cast and crew interviews. This focuses mostly on the look and feel of the show, which Sax intends to be like a film from the 1940s. Too bad it's hard to see it under such heavy shadow. He also talks about disliking CGI in period pieces, which is funny because the CGI in "Murder" is exceptionally poor, although the model work shown here is pretty clever.

Those who are more interested in character than plot will probably find this middling mystery worthy of a rental. Those who really want a meaty whodunit, on the other hand, should look elsewhere. Neither should buy, considering the remarkably underwhelming PQ.

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