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British television drama has grown in popularity over the years with short-run series like Ultraviolet and MI-5 gathering huge followings on both sides of the pond. But if one show deserves the majority of the credit for bridging the gap between Masterpiece Theater and modern audiences it's the original Prime Suspect, a grim, gritty, passionate four part detective drama about a female investigator breaking into the male dominated London homicide squad.
Helen Mirren earned endless kudos for her chain-smoking Jane Tennison and with good reason: Her work here is among the most complete characterizations to ever grace the small screen. She enters the show full of ambition and self-confidence but also terrified of failure and intimidation. She wrangles a brutal murder case when the lead, a well-regarded good old boy detective, dies suddenly of a heart attack. Prime Suspect follows her instincts over nearly four hours as she follow leads, examines evidence and pleads her case with higher-ups. She always feels the pressure of being the first woman to run a major homicide investigation and is well aware of the legions that want her to fail. She also tries to juggle her personal life with Peter, played by the wonderful Tom Wilkinson. Like the main story, Tennison's personal life is messy and doesn't come to any easy conclusion.
Prime Suspect also spends a good deal of time following the titular character, George Marlow (John Bowe) and his common law wife Moyra (Zoë Wanamaker ) as they try to deal with the constant police hounding and public scrutiny. These two are just as interesting as Tennison. Far from idealized, may or may not have been involved in the crime but either way they're far from innocent. Glimpses into their life leave the impression of damage people with far too much emotional baggage. Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, these people are ruined and, for the most part, they did it to themselves.
Other characters are equally interesting, even if they appear on in supporting roles. The majority of blokes in the squad give Tennison a hard time when she first arrives but they slowly warm to her. The way the actors play this development, however, it's never obvious or unearned. They simply grow accustomed to her style and respect her no-bullshit attitude. The one exception to this is Otley, played by the excellent and acidic Tom Bell. He's as resistant to her authority as the rest but he never recognizes her abilities. A lesser production would have provided cheap warm-fuzzies down the road with these characters developing a mutual appreciation or even falling in love but Prime Suspect is far too real for that.
The crime itself is is equally real: A woman is found brutally murdered and possibly raped in a prostitute's flat. There are twists and turns in the investigation but nothing Hollywood. Sometimes the investigation changes gears simply due to mistakes made by the police. There's no super-villain and no overarching statement. Just wrongdoing and the dogged efforts of the marvelous Jane Tennison.
The full-frame video is a bit soft and dull. There are occasional flaws in the source material and there is an overall muted quality to the colors. Some of this is by design but no one will mistake this for a recent production or a carefully restored classic.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 is a bit muddy. There are a few moments where the thickly-accented dialog is lost and there are no subtitles. Most of the time, however, it's fine.
Just a text biography of the star.
The disc itself is nothing spectacular in the tech department but this first installment of Prime Suspect is riveting filmmaking. Mirren's performance is definitive and entire production is outstanding. As a rental or a purchase, this is one program that's absolutely worth watching.