TV thriller Witnesses takes on the Nordic crime formula and adapts it to a French setting - in this case the grey, dour town of Le Tréport in Normandy. Aired on Channel 4, the show is the fourth collaboration between creators Hervé Hadmard and Marc Herpoux, whose last series Signature was set in a more tropical locale, on the French island of La Réunion.
Witnesses kicks off with young cop Sandra Winckler (Marie Dompnier), assigned to a bizarre case: bodies are being dug up from cemeteries and displayed in show homes across the region. In each house, the corpses are that of a man, woman and teenager. None of them seem to have anything in common, save for the recent date of their passing.
It soon becomes apparent that the crimes are in some way linked to retired policeman Paul Maisonneuve (Thierry Lhermitte) - whose surname aptly means ‘new house’ in French. Distraught by the death of his wife, and recovering from a car accident, he nonetheless emerges out of his rest home to help with the investigation.
Witnesses’ casting is right on the money. Thierry Lhermitte, whom French audiences will have been used to seeing in comedies, is unnerving as the steely-eyed, somber inspector. His counterpart Dompnier, relatively unknown until now, is utterly persuasive as a brilliant cop obsessed by her case, all the while vulnerable to the demands her profession makes on her family. The evolving dynamic between the two leads is what makes the show, thankfully staying clear of clichés.
The intrigue itself is well paced - even if its conclusion could have been more coherently packaged. The discovery of the perpetrator of the main crime is indeed a well-crafted surprise. It however leaves to wonder whether the culprit couldn’t have found a more straightforward way of achieving their goal. Similarly, Laurent Lucas is terrifying as villain Kaz Gorbier (not a spoiler), although his motivations aren’t always clear.
Hadmard and Herpoux make great use of the series’ dreary location to amp up its ambiance - the grey beach, its old industrial sites and bunkers are used cleverly for key scenes; cemeteries look over the sea; characters get drenched in rain, reflecting the helplessness of the police, who for a good chunk of the series, watch events unfold beyond their control. There are surrealistic touches too. A wolf is sighted repeatedly; none of the police ever wear uniforms; and Sandra insists on wearing heeled boots to a job in in which she must regularly chase criminals on foot.
Witnesses is a solid show – although not quite matching the originality and emotional depth of recent hits True Detective or The Killing. While its plot doesn’t particularly shine in the genre, it showcases great acting, intriguing characters, and a strikingly atmospheric setting.
Witnesses is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from October 5th.