Trial & Retribution Volumes 1-4 Review
ITV tends to be held up as the pinnacle of all that is wrong with British television and, flicking through this week's Radio Times - which offers such delights as Trisha, Britain's Best Back Gardens, 60 Minute Makeover, I Want That House, and something named (probably quite appropriately) Total Rubbish, described as a docu-soap following a handful of Glasgow binmen - I am tempted to agree. Yet there remains one field in with ITV is arguably second to none, at least as far as the UK goes, and that is the crime drama. Over the years, ITV has commissioned a veritable sea of these programmes, many of them critically acclaimed, ranging from Taggart's Glasgow side streets to the lofty heights of Inspector Morse's Oxford. One show that has frequently met with extremely positive reviews is Trial & Retribution, a police procedural drama that has been produced as a series of one-off double-bills (at a rate of one per year since 1997). Now, Contender Home Entertainment have released their first of two box sets, each containing four of the eight episodes (the second set is due for release in Spring 2005). The question is, does this series hold up on DVD as well as it did on television?
The brainchild of Lynda La Plante, a writer with a highly successful track record in crime fiction, including shows such as Widows, The Commander and Prime Suspect, Trial & Retribution details the investigations of DS Mike Walker (David Hayman) and DI Pat North (Kate Buffery), two very different cops who find themselves working together and eventually entering into a relationship. Walker is impatient, rash, smokes a lot and feels he got where he is through hard work alone, whereas North is a more level-headed individual. The various cases they encounter range from unpleasant to downright shocking, with La Plante never shying away from implying or depicting horrific acts, from child murder to the rape and mutilation of women. The series holds back absolutely no punches, resulting in a complete lack of predictability.
Where Trial & Retribution really differs from the other programmes of its ilk is in the even-handed nature with which it tackles the various phases of each case. Whereas the majority of crima drama series focus on the detective protagonist's quest to apprehend the perpetrator of the crime in question (although some, like Kavanagh QC, have been known to place an emphasis on the judicial proceedings), Trial & Retribution covers every possible angle, starting with the perpetration with the crime itself, then going on to detail every stage of the enquiry, including the process of interviewing suspects, leading up to the court trial, which often takes up as much as half the running time. Every aspect is covered in extreme detail, with a definite focus on maintaining an accurate portrayal of the business. In the first episode, for instance, the interviewing of a key suspect is presented in real-time, covering everything from his name and date of birth to what he was doing at the time the murder in question was supposedly committed. By way of split-screen, the camera often focuses on the eyes of both the interviewers and the interviewee, allowing the audience to make up its own mind as to the guilt of the suspect. Indeed, on more than one occasion, the final verdict is not 100% conclusive, creating a situation where it is strongly suggested that the wrong person may have been convicted. This device is used to great effect in the second episode, where the obviously guilty serial rapist/torturer/murderer walks out of court, scot-free, with a smug smile on his face, only to get home to face a situation he never expected. By creating these extremely intense character studies, La Plante is able to grab her viewers by the balls and force them to invest in the characters.
The series also represents something of a technical innovation in its use of splitscreen, and while I very much doubt that this was the first television show to use this, it certainly did it a long time before 24 came along and was heralded by many as the pioneer of the technique. Indeed, during an interview featured in this set, La Plante claims that the creators of 24 actually contacted her, asking to view demonstrations of the technique. Splitscreen, which has been, on occasions, used for no apparent reason - in BBC1's Spooks, for example, where it often merely reiterates the same information multiple times - works surprisingly effectively here. Often, it is used to show reactions to the same question from different people, or to identify a character when their name is mentioned. Far from being a gimmick, the splitscreen is well-integrated into the series and quickly becomes one of its staple elements.
My main criticism of this series is the fact that, as it progresses, it becomes more and more soap operatic. The first two episodes definitely come over as the strongest thanks to their relative lack of insight into the private lives of its main characters, but with each new episode, La Plante has more and more trouble keeping both Walker and North involved with the same case. By putting the two of them in a relationship together, she solves some of these problems, but this takes valuable time away from the most interesting aspect of the series - the police procedural - and demands that the viewer invest in a relationship that is not always particularly convincing or even interesting. By the fourth episode (the last one in this set), the concept has become strained to the point that North is tasked to investigate a case that, coincidentally, was originally headed by Walker. To what extent problems such as these continue in the next four episodes is unclear, since my memory of them is patchy at best, but their presence here is a little disappointing given the quality of the rest of the material on display.
Each episode lasts for around 3 hours and 20 minutes (they were originally screened as two-parters, each running for approximately 2 hours including commercials), although the final two episodes are slightly shorter than the first two.
Trial & Retribution
A five-year-old girl disappears from the council estate on which she lives, and is later found nearby, dead, stuffed inside a drainpipe and having been anally violated. DS Walker is brought in to crack the case and, aided by DI North, sets out to find the perpetrator at all costs. Suspicion quickly falls on Michael Dunn (Rhys Ifans), a local drunk, lunatic and supposed paedophile. Dunn, however, protests his innocence, and it soon becomes clear that the eyewitness accounts are inconsistent.
The pace of this first episode is slower than those that follow it, and the plot is considerably leaner, spending little to no time on the private lives of its protagonists. This works well because it establishes the framework to which the rest of the series will conform, and it allows the viewer to become sufficiently engrossed in the case itself. Rhys Ifans has an extremely strong screen presence, giving an ambiguous performance that leaves you unsure as to whether to pity or loathe his character, and the study into how the death of the young girl affects her family is handled well, without becoming overly melodramatic.
Trial & Retribution II
Three women are abducted, raped, mutilated and left for dead. When one survives, she is able to finger the charismatic Damon Morton (Iain Glen) as the perpetrator, and initially it looks like an airtight case. However, when Morton's three employees each step forward to take the blame, and his wife Cindy (Emma Croft) provides an alibi, things become much more complicated. Morton is clearly guilty, but with his charming smile and personality he seems to have everyone under his sway... including the jury.
This, in my opinion, is the strongest of the four episodes presented in this set. The crimes in question are horrific in nature, and La Plante and director Aisling Walsh explore them in a level of detail that is at times almost too much to bear. The atmosphere throughout is unflinchingly bleak, and Iain Glen makes for a thoroughly believable and repulsive villain. The fact that he holds both his victims and his interrogators with such obvious contempt, and is quite obviously guilty, makes his ability to seemingly get away with anything all the more frustrating. Elsewhere, Emma Croft puts in a fine performance as Morton's silently suffering wife, who puts up with various emotional and physical abuse, as well as her husband inviting his 16-year-old lover to live with them. The conclusion, too, is excellent: bloody, horrifying, depressing and unfair, yet at the same time strangely satisfying. Television this daring is all too rare.
Trial & Retribution III
A fifteen-year-old girl disappears during her paper round. When her clothes are found in an old boathouse, the obvious suspect is its owner, Karl Wilding (Anthony Higgins), an impatient man concealing a penchant for child porn and an alcoholic wife. However, when the unbalanced Stephen Warrington (Richard E. Grant) shows a little too much interest in both the case and in North, it becomes apparent that he may be involved.
Once again, the show benefits from an extremely engaging stand-out performance, this time from Richard E. Grant, who does an incredible job of conveying Stephen Warrington's mood swings and obsessive behaviour. While his involvement in the abduction case should come as no surprise to anyone aware of the conventions of detective thrillers, discovering exactly what his involvement is definitely makes for gripping viewing. Elsewhere, however, it's a shame to see this story padded out with soap operatic elements involving Walker and North which, surprise surprise, become connected with the case in hand. That said, this is still gripping television.
Trial & Retribution IV
Fast-tracked by the Home Office in a new promotional scheme, North finds herself investigating an old case re-opened in the light of newly discovered evidence. The case was, coincidentally enough, run by Walker ten years ago, and while he finds it hard enough to deal with North being fast-tracked, his pride is wounded greatly by the fact that his judgement is being called into question. The case deals with James McCready (James Wilby), a gay man accused of murdering his boyfriend. Amid allegations that he was aggressive and homophobic (accusations that can hardly be denied), Walker can only look on as it looks more and more certain that the man he still believes to be a vicious killer will walk free.
If nothing else, you have to admire these shows for their balanced character portrayals. Walker is irritable, homophobic and sexist, and it seems is not above manipulating evidence in his favour, yet he is still a sympathetic individual. This episode stretches credibility somewhat, given that it is ludicrous in the extreme to imagine a police officer being allowed to investigate her own boyfriend for misconduct, and also by working just a little too hard to create a back-story between Walker and McCready. By the end of the show, everything has become so convoluted that you'll either be scratching your head or chuckling to yourself. James Wilby also makes for, by far, the least charismatic and interesting of the four "villains" of these episodes. The weakest of this set by a significant margin, Trial & Retribution IV is still engaging TV, but it descends too deep into the realms of soap opera.
The first two episodes are presented in non-anamorphic 1.33:1, whereas episodes three and four, which were shot at the opposite end of the widescreen revolution, are presented in anamorphic 1.78:1. As a rule, the quality improves with each subsequent episode. The first two volumes especially have some heavy grain, and the fact that a 200 minute episode is crammed on to each disc means that there is some moderate artefacting. The later episodes are a bit smoother in appearance, resulting in less compression artefacts, but none of them look superb. That said, it would probably be fair to say that they wouldn't have looked much better, if at all, when originally broadcast on television.
All four episodes are presented in plain old Dolby Digital 2.0, despite the packaging and the opening titles of the final two episodes carrying Dolby Surround logos. The audio is at times quite inventive, with imaginative use of channel separation during the many split-screen segments. The quality of the audio is pretty good, although the dialogue is not always completely coherent, meaning that the lack of subtitles of any kind is something of a problem. Contender failed to provide subtitles for their release of Spooks: Season One as well, and in my opinion they should really get their act together over this, instead of ignoring the substantial number of viewers who rely on subtitles in order to actually follow what they are watching.
Packaging & Menus
The four discs come inside a digipack with an outer cardboard cover. Synopses and cast lists for each episode are included.
Each disc has 16 chapter stops, which is reasonably generous but not really enough given that each show runs for nearly 3 and a half hours. The menus are clearly laid out with minimal background animation.
Bonus materials are limited to original production trailers (which, given that they are quite long and essentially outline the plot of each episode, were probably not used for marketing on TV) for each of the four episode (one per disc), and an interview with Lynda La Plante and various cast members, where various staples of the show are discussed, including the use of split-screen, the concept of studying each aspect of each case in minute detail, and a highly interesting segment in which La Plante points out various quirks that can be used to tell if someone is lying. More than anything, this featurette shows the amount of care and research put into the show, and it's a shame it doesn't last longer, because it seems to be merely scratching the surface. Still, this is certainly more than many DVD releases of TV shows release, so I won't complain too much.
Trial & Retribution stands out as one of the best UK drama series of recent years, consistently refusing to dumb down for the audience or opt for the easy way out. Packed with gripping storylines, engaging performances and occasional technical innovation, I would heartily recommend this set to anyone with an interest in solid crime drama.
Trial & Retribution: Volumes 1-4 is released on September 20th 2004.