Monday, 10 February 2020

TV review: The Stranger, Netflix (2020)

I wasn’t the only person impressed by this police procedural, as the following tweet seen on 4 February demonstrates, though watching two episodes didn’t allow me to grasp the identity of the female character Dannielle refers to here.

After searching online for information about the novel this eight-episode Netflix miniseries was based on, I quickly uncovered a Newsweek story dated 30 January that included this:
‘The Stranger’ on Netflix is an adaptation of Harlan Coben's 2015 novel of the same name, but some big changes have been made on the way from page to streaming service. Most noticeably, [the] Stranger has been turned from a male character into a female one, played by ‘Ant-Man’ and ‘The Wasp’'s Hannah John-Kamen, and the story has been moved from New Jersey to a British town (the series was filmed in and around Manchester in the north of England).
To start with the second observation in Newsweek’s story: the British setting makes this series look and feel, for Aussie viewers, very much like standard end-of-week drama fare, the kind of show you might see on the main Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) channel on a Friday night, when people are at home and the kids have been put to bed. I have watched this species of drama for a long time, and especially enjoyed ‘Silent Witness’ (a kind of low-key UK version of ‘CSI’)  and, more recently, ‘Vera’ (where the top cop is a woman of mature years, as in ‘The Stranger’).  Naturally, I loved ‘Spooks’, the BBC1 TV series that ran from 2002 to 2011 and that screened on the ABC. It starred Richard Armitage, who plays Adam Price in ‘The Stranger’.

I have read some of Coben’s novels but I don’t remember anything from that experience. All I remember is that I was entertained and the same was true when I watched ‘The Stranger’ on TV.

In the miniseries the plot gyrates madly from one moment to the next, you are never left waiting long before the next twist diverts you. Just as you thought you were getting on top of the story, something else happens to draw your attention to another facet of this gem. It’s a kind of divertissement, of course, for which we turn to genre fiction (see that last link, above).

Modern genre fiction provides other attractions as well, and in ‘The Stranger’ you get some stereotype-busting casting – notable in this regard are Kadiff Kirwan as a gay, black cop and a groundskeeper (I couldn’t find his name in the IMDB credits list) who sits on the autism spectrum. The presence of many people of colour in the cast list for this film makes it stand out from comparable productions, such as the British TV series ‘Midsomer Murders’, which started airing in 1997, is still going strong, and is predominantly Anglo.

The use of technology to progress the plot in ‘The Stranger’ is also well done. Often a text message from a family member will provide the trigger for a change of direction in a conversation, in the same way that, traditionally, someone entering a room or receiving a phone call might have done. In a film where youth is a theme this tactic is obviously important.

The narrative in this miniseries comprises two separate storylines, one involving children and another involving adults. The main storyline, involving adults, challenges preconceptions about the world. A central premise is that privacy has been eroded by the internet. The fiction turns on facts delivered by a woman (the stranger of the series title, played by Hannah John-Kamen) who tells others compromising information about their loved ones. Armitage’s Adam Price is one of the people who receive such information, in his case when he is at a sports club for a soccer match in which his youngest son, Ryan (Misha Handley), is competing.

You are however constantly hearing people hide secrets, in a way that, you think, will be harmful to them. The dialogue, furthermore, is not always true-to-life; you frequently feel frustrated as people behave in ways that militate against their own best interests. On several occasions you wish that people would leave things to the police rather than taking action themselves. So, the movie is not entirely realistic but is, rather, designed to maximise suspense; you cannot have any idea, at the outset, how matters will turn out.

The use of music is effective and good casting demonstrates the amount of thought that went into planning the enterprise. Secondary characters do as much work as the principals, and this adds to the feeling of quality you get from the series. Different episodes were written and directed by different people, so I won’t list them, and Coban helped write the screenplay.

The title draws the viewer’s attention to how people can preserve secrets regardless of proximity. This is certainly true of Adam’s eldest son Thomas (Jacob Dudman), but it applies equally to others, including Adam’s wife Corinne (Dervla Kirwan). The performance of Brandon Fellows as Thomas’ friend Mike Tripp stood out, for me, due to its quality but all the leads are good, and secondary characters are solid.

It requires a total stranger to show Adam how little he knows about people he cares deeply about. Ancillary reverberations this series creates stem from notions of the fragility of life and the importance of small things. People telling lies can have a major impact on the lives of others. It seems to be saying that all of us function to maintain quality of life; there are no easy targets when it comes to the maintaining wellbeing of the community. It takes a village.

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