New questions about an old murder
When journalists and detectives on TV get too emotionally invested in their work, it can be a good thing for the viewer. Assuming the script is smart, we get a chance to watch parallel dramas unfold. As we figure out who committed the crime, we also figure out how the investigator’s unresolved issues are driving him or her. The crime and the investigator become closely entwined, the dancer and the dance.
“Place of Execution,’’ the new “Masterpiece Contemporary,’’ does a middling job of blending a 40-year-old murder case with the problems of the documentary journalist who’s making a movie about it. Based on a Val McDermid novel, the two-part miniseries contains enough compelling genre twists to keep you genuinely eager to find out whodunit. But the portrait of workaholic journalist Catherine Heathcoat (Juliet Stevenson) is overly simplistic. “Prime Suspect’’ was the peak of this kind of psychological procedural, and “Place of Execution’’ does not approach those heights of characterization.
The miniseries, which premieres tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 2, jumps back and forth between the original case, involving the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl, and Catherine’s obsessive research in the present tense. We see Detective George Bennett in the 1960s (played wearing period spectacles by Lee Ingleby), piecing together the girl’s murder with suspects including her snobby stepfather (Greg Wise) and a local boy who had a crush on her. And then we see the elderly George Bennett (Philip Jackson) sharing his memories of the case on camera with Catherine, clearly still unnerved by the details of the investigation.
When Bennett suddenly withdraws from participation in Catherine’s documentary, she realizes she may be unknowingly stirring up unresolved questions about the old murder. But as she starts to dig deeper, her troubled teen daughter, still devastated by her parents’ divorce, begins to act out for attention. Mother-daughter conflicts emerge, along with other stock issues about working mothers. Alas, Catherine’s drama of self-discovery feels forced and schematic, no matter how much facial wriggling Stevenson uses. What keeps “Places of Execution’’ addictive is procedural material - the cache of obscene photographs that appear to solve the mystery, the young Bennett’s reading of clues, the strange behavior by the suspects.
Stevenson takes charge of the miniseries, but she brings too much unfocused energy to the more emotionally complex moments. She makes Catherine’s changes of heart and mind too obvious and automatic. The more subtle and persuasive performance belongs to Ingleby, whose slow, precise gaze across crime scenes and evidence is richly evocative. He makes the young Bennett into the character to watch, as he so carefully watches everyone else.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.