Trial & Retribution: The Fourth Collection Review

The Series

If you want an overview of Trial & Retribution as a whole, I suggest reading my reviews of the first three volumes in this series (here, here and here). This fourth box set kicks off from where The Third Collection left off, concluding the programme’s first series as a drama serial (as opposed to its previous “one film per year” format) with three two-parters which continue the story of the driven DCSI Mike Walker (David Hayman) and his po-faced subordinate, DCI Roisin Connor (Victoria Smurfit).

Whereas, until this point, every episode of Trial & Retribution had been written by its creator and producer, Lynda La Plante, this set opens with the first to be penned by a freelancer. As written by Julie Dixon, Paradise Lost tells the story of a young black man, Milton Jones (Clint Dyer), who awakens from a drug-induced stupor to find that his white girlfriend has been raped and murdered in their flat. Unable to provide the police with a convincing account of what happened, and remembering nothing other than that they had previously invited another man back to their flat (whose name and appearance he can’t recall), Milton quickly becomes Roisin’s number one suspect. Charged with his own girlfriend’s murder, he attempts suicide in custody, at which point the holes in Roisin’s investigation begin to pour in thick and fast and she finds herself accused of both insensitivity and racism. Doing his best to make amends with the families of both Milton and his girlfriend, Walker goes through the evidence with a fine toothcomb and, in the process, uncovers a string of similar attacks on white women with black boyfriends. Milton, meanwhile, having recovered from his suicide attempt, is desperate to track down his girlfriend’s killer, with or without the cooperation of the police.

What’s most interesting about Paradise Lost is not the plot itself but the fact that it doesn’t actually feel like an episode Trial & Retribution. Much of this can be attributed to the stylistic touches: the script and direction are pacy, with the action unfolding at a brisk clip, and the use of handheld camerawork creates a dizzying effect which, for once, feels appropriate given the confusion felt by the character of Milton. The episode takes place in the middle of summer, and the heavily saturated colour palette and bleached-out whites create a stifling atmosphere, adding a sense of overwhelming intensity to the drama, particularly given the series’ traditional penchant for an undersaturated palette. As the episodes became increasingly shorter, breakneck pacing such as is found here would become all too common, but at least here it manages to be effective because both the writer and the director are working to create a certain tone. The mystery itself, and the revelation of the killer’s identity, are not particularly noteworthy, while the script’s sledgehammer approach to the issue of racism in the police force grates at time, but Milton Jones himself is a well-developed character for whom it’s impossible not to feel sorry. His own personal journey is at the heart of the narrative and, in a sense, brings him full circle, resulting in a conclusion that, on one level, seems deeply unfair while at the same time feeling strangely appropriate.

Up next is Curriculum Vitae, comfortably the best of this five-episode series and the only one to hold a candle to some of the earlier, one-off outings. Written by Phil Gladwin, it returns to a more sedate pace and deals with a single mother, Suzie MacDonald (Victoria Hamilton), who returns home from an aborted business trip to discover her baby daughter, Poppy, dead in her cot, while the recently appointed nanny, Leanne Taylor (Sinead Matthews), has apparently done a runner. The post-mortem rules out accidental death and the mother is eliminated as a suspect, so all eyes are on the mysterious Leanne, whose glowing references and background, and even her name, are quickly revealed to be fabrications. As Walker and the team dig deeper, they come across worrying evidence which suggests that the woman claiming to be Leanne may in fact have been employed as the nanny of another baby who died under similar circumstances.

What’s impressive about this episode is that the writer actually seems to get back to the heart of what Trial & Retribution used to be about. More than any other episode in this five-part series, Curriculum Vitae concentrates on establishing the circumstances surrounding a murder, following the investigation to the point when an arrest is made and the suspect charged, and culminating in a tense court case, all the while building up a compelling portrait of the accused, while at the same time concentrating on how the victim’s immediate family are affected first by the death itself, then the inevitable investigation, and finally the trial. It is this latter element that has been missed most in recent episodes of the show – a by-product, no doubt, of the greatly reduced running time when compared to the glory years. Gladwin’s solution to this conundrum is to eliminate any unnecessary focus on the regular characters’ private lives. Reference is made in passing to what they get up to outside work – there’s an effective scene, for example, where DS Satchell (Dorian Lough) frantically calls up his wife to check the credentials of their own baby’s nanny – but this episode is first and foremost about the death of baby Poppy and the battle to locate and prosecute Leanne. Leanne, incidentally, is a very compelling character, wonderfully portrayed by Sinead Matthews, who has that rare ability to turn on a dime between sycophantic sweetness and spine-chilling menace. In a sense, what makes her scary is that she seems so utterly plausible, to the extent that, even when her story is being torn apart by the prosecution and she is resorting to altering key facts at the drop of a hat, she still seems to sincerely believe the rubbish she’s spewing. She also gets a wonderful scene during an interview shortly after her arrest when, presented with the evidence against her by Mike and Roisin, she laughs uproarious and declares “You two must be really stupid! How did they let you run a police department?” Well, yes, took the words right out of my mouth.

The final episode, Mirror Image, sees Lynda La Plante assuming writing duties once more, this time with the murder of a police commander and his wife, Jack and Honor Delany (Brian Gwaspari and Gillian Gordon). Their twin sons, Michael and Rory (Robert and Jonathan Timmins), stand to inherit a considerable amount of money and property, but they have a solid alibi in the form of CCTV footage which shows them at a nightclub before, during and well after their parents’ death. Believing there to be more to this than meets the eye, however, and that the boys had good reason to kill their parents beyond the prospect of financial gain, Roisin works doggedly to determine whether either Michael or Rory could have committed the murders themselves or employed someone else to do their dirty work.

This episode’s greatest strength, quite appropriately, is the characterisation and portrayal of the twins. The actors playing them, themselves twin brothers, give extremely nuanced performances, ably conveying the power balance between them without over-egging the pudding. Likewise, the climax is a shocker and, seemingly, completely plausible given what we have been shown about the twins’ personalities. Otherwise, there’s something a bit plodding about this two-parter, with the investigation progressing as one would expect, the inevitable skeletons coming out of the closet, Roisin being an impulsive ninny, and so on. It’s one of those cases where you get the feeling La Plante had a great idea for a climax and hung the entire episode on this premise but forgot to make the journey to it particularly compelling. That’s not to say that it’s bad by any means, but you can definitely get a sense of this series becoming a bit long in the tooth by this stage.

With this fourth collection, essentially all the Trial & Retributions that are worth owning have been released on DVD. The subsequent 2008 series really wasn’t much cop at all, and, going by what has aired so far of the 2009 series, things are unlikely to get any better. Perhaps the time has come to put Trial & Retribution to rest: as it stands, it has now completed its de-evolution into another run-of-the-mill police thriller and is therefore serving no particular purpose in a schedule already jam-packed with run-of-the-mill police thrillers. What started out as a unique and inventive take on the investigative and judiciary processes is now left with precious little sense of its own identity, and while the three episodes included in this set are all of a decent standard, all but one of them are a far cry from what was being produced in the series’ heyday. At least the relatively agreeable price tag – less than £15 at our cheapest affiliate – helps cushion the blow somewhat, with Curriculum Vitae coming close to justifying the cost alone.

DVD Presentation

As with the previous set by Acorn Media, each episode is presented on its own dual-layer disc, with an anamorphic 1.78:1 image and Dolby Digital 2.0 audio, sans subtitles. As before, the quality is basically acceptable as far as TV broadcast material goes, but isn’t going to win any awards. There is an inherent softness to the material, along with unnaturally clumpy grain and some noticeable haloing around edges. On the audio front, spit channel effects are on occasion used to good effect during the series’ trademark split-screen sequences, but overall the sound, while clear, is understandably flat and unremarkable.

This time round, the only extras provided are a Lynda La Plante biography, cast filmographies, and a handful of production stills pertaining to each of the three episodes.

7 out of 10
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