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Prime Suspect 2
THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
Following the outstanding first installment of the British crime drama Prime Suspect, Prime Suspect 2 builds on the difficult life and career of Jane Tennison, the tough-talking, no-nonsense chief detective played brilliantly by Helen Mirren. There's nothing Hollywood about this series, which doesn't play by familiar formula rules. It doesn't go down the melodramatic soap opera road of NYPD Blue but it's not as lean and impersonal as Law & Order can sometimes feel. The detectives here have inner lives but only at the service of the story.
The first Prime Suspect concentrated largely on Tennison's uneasy breakthrough as the first female lead inspector in the murder squad and the show followed the highs and lows of both her professional and personal lives. This time the roughly 3 1/2 hour show starts out with a provocative set-up: The skeletal remains of a young woman, hands-bound with a leather belt, are found buried behind a house in a neighborhood populated mostly by black immigrants from the Caribbean. The Britain of Prime Suspect is a nation near the edge. Not much is shown of the general public but there's a general sense of unease in the community and among the cops, with both groups eying each other with distrust and contempt.
Of course, since Prime Suspect isn't propaganda and the show doesn't aim to preach on any particular social or moral issues, it doesn't play safe with politically correct characters and it also doesn't always go in the directions you expect. But by diving into this touchy territory with telling a good story as the goal the show manages to mine deep social and racial rifts. This stone-sober approach reflects both the show's gravity and the seriousness with which Tennison views her job.
Another nice addition to the show this time around is Colin Salmon as Robert Oswalde, a black detective who can match Tennison for toughness and who goes through some of the same rough initiation that Tennison experienced in the first film. However, this time, having proven herself to "her boys," Tennison has the support of most of the squad. Oswalde, meanwhile, is under constant scrutiny and, for her own reasons, Tennison offers him no support. Their rocky relationship is the backbone of much of this gritty program and watching Mirren and Salmon verbally spar is extremely engaging.
Another fascinating group of characters is the Allen family, a modest black family who live next door to the crime scene. Of note are Fraser James as the emotionally fragile son Tony, George Harris as the strong, tight-lipped father Vernon and Claire Benedict as the loving mother Esme, but really like the entire cast, everyone in the Allen family is played extremely well. Their connection to the crime is murky at best and viewers might find themselves suspecting anything and everything over the course of the film. While the resolution, like the earlier Prime Suspect, isn't necessarily mind-blowing (it doesn't take advantage of Sixth Sense/Usual Suspects-style magic tricks) it hints at the feeling of hopelessness that these cops feel in their darkest moments: That there are plain, ordinary people out there committing unspeakable acts for no real reason and, from the detectives' point of view, there's nearly no way to stop them. Tennison, Oswalde and the rest only hope that they can stop them from doing it again.
The full frame video is similar to the earlier release: a bit soft, a bit lacking in detail, but overall acceptable. The show is shot in a very raw way and the lighting and camera work reflect that. The transfer is as good as can be expected from a decade old TV movie. Colors are vibrant at times and I saw no obvious artifacting.
The Dolby Digital audio is also fine, if a bit bland. Voices are only tough to decipher among the strongest accents. Subtitles would be nice at times, particularly during one excruciating deathbed scene, but they're not included.
As with other Prime Suspect DVDs the treatment here is somewhat lackluster but it doesn't really matter when the main program is so engaging. Helen Mirren is wonderful, as usual, and the rest of the cast is great as well. One of the nice things about British drama series is that they don't lock into 20-plus episodes a year, year-after-year. They revive popular series when they have a powerful story to tell. Prime Suspect is a perfect example of this. Even if you only rent the DVDs (which, given the lack of supplemental material, wouldn't be a bad decision) you should definitely give it a look.