Some classy Euro drama returns to SBS this week just as The Bridge finally fades from view, though it’s hard to forget the stubborn, emotionally vulnerable Saga Noren, played with such wrenching authenticity by Sofia Helin. With her abrupt, confronting answers, emotional candour and the repetitive Asperger’s-style intensity, plus that greenish-brown 1970s Porsche, brown leather trousers and flowing militarystyle trench coat, surely she’s one of TV’s greatest detectives.
The Last Panthers, also on SBS, couldn’t be more different, though the plotting of this sixparter may turn out to be just as compelling and labyrinthine. It’s certainly a pistol shot away from Romanzo Criminale (which has started up again late on Mondays, also on SBS), the true story of the notorious and highly dangerous Italian crime family, Rome’s Banda della Magliana. It’s also more expansive and less claustrophobic than that other great French crime series, Olivier Marchal’s Braquo, with its violent rule book-ignoring cops and that distinctive nouvelle vague existential edge, but just as gripping once it gets under way.
The Last Panthers is a kind of six-hour highend European art movie. A joint pan-European commission from Britain’s Sky and France’s Canal+, it was filmed in Marseilles, Belgrade, Montenegro and London. Is it based on an idea by French journalist Jerome Pierrat, and was co-created and written by Jack Thorne ( Skins) and directed by Swedish music-video master Johan Renck ( Breaking Bad).
This is a crime caper in which the characters cross many borders and speak many languages, transporting us into a modern-day Europe beleaguered by new forms of crime that operate on a violent, epic scale.
The show takes its name from a notorious gang of jewel thieves known as the Pink Panthers, who rose to fame with their bold daylight raids and movie-style getaways, gaining their mischievous nickname after the famous Pink Panther film franchise. Since 1999 they have been linked to more than 383 robberies and thefts in 35 countries, escaping back home, like comic-book heroes, to the safety of the Balkans and the protection of corrupt or inept officials.
The first episode begins with an audacious heist in Marseilles (“the city of the Kalashnikov”, according to one magistrate) by a gang of white-overalled, pistol-waving thieves who take a cache of expensive diamonds from an upmarket jewellery shop. In the process they tip a barrel of pink paint over the terrified female manager in a kind of tribute to the original Panthers.
But their getaway is a disaster: a six-year old girl on holiday with her parents is shot and killed. On the run, their bounty becomes so tainted (“bad diamonds that can only be sold at a bad price”), they are deserted by their designated buyer and end up hunted by the police, Interpol and the insurance company covering the jewellers.
On their trail is high-end loss adjuster Naomi Frankcom (Samantha Morton, exuding intelligence), a British Army veteran scarred from her time in the Balkans as a member of the UN Protection Force during the 1990s. Reluctant to “do the Balkans” again, she is coerced into the job by her boss Tom Kendle (a wonderfully jaded John Hurt), who turns up in Marseilles (“gateway to Africa, arsehole to France”, he drawls) to deliver the news.
Khalil (double Cesar Award winner Tahar Rahim) is the “cowboy” French-Algerian detective who practically assigns himself to “follow the guns” and crack the case. Just ahead of the law is the lead diamond raider, the brooding Milan (Croatian star Goran Bogdan), aka Animal in his former life as a master crook.
The first part of the episode employs the visual vernacular of the thriller, fluently stagemanaged by Renck, but turns darker and more sombre by the end. Naomi’s experiences in the former Yugoslavia return in flashback and her own violent memories and the emerging stories of Khalil and Milan start to inform the narrative, spiralling backwards to Bosnia during the dark days of the Balkan conflict.
Renck’s direction has a burnished look, all greys, black and cream, at times reminiscent of The Wire and The French Connection. David Bowie provided the theme song of the show shortly before he died, a brooding track titled Blackstar, and Warp Music’s Clark has provided the soundtrack, which the musician describes “as a continuous slab of liquid melancholy”, adding a kind of almost biblical grandeur to some of director of photography Laurent Tangy’s ethereal, slow wide shots. Our jewel thieves might be able to cross Europe’s borders anonymously but they’ll find it harder when the series takes them to Britain. Once the bastion of freedom and civil liberties, it’s now one of the most advanced surveillance societies in the world, up there with Russia and China. Even if you have done nothing wrong, there is still much to fear, with one closed-circuit camera for every 11 people, and a vast electronic footprint created from cash withdrawals, supermarket shopping, texts, calls and social media posts.
This is hardly news to avid readers of British crime writers such as John Harvey, Ian Rankin or Mark Billingham, but it’s a shock when this reality is documented so forensically in real life as it is in Hunted, a riveting six-part series from Shine and Channel 4.
Fourteen British citizens are given fugitive status and go rather maniacally on the run. For up to 28 days they attempt to evade capture from some of the world’s best investigators, including the penetrating Brett Lovegrove, former head of counter-terrorism for City of London Police, who led the response to the 7/7 bombings and is a firm believer in the state’s powers. He wrangles a team of 30 hunters carefully selected from law enforcement, military intelligence, cyber analysis, online profiling and human tracking.
The participants all flee simultaneously, setting up a multiple manhunt while the clock ticks down, intensely monitored from a secret command-and-control centre overflowing with analysts at computer terminals and the grim-faced former cops and intelligence agents on their white boards. They feed intelligence to the onground teams of “hunters”, their black cars and vans parked in opportune spots across the country.
As the fugitives soon find out, hiding in Britain isn’t easy when everything they do leaves a trail. It’s also psychologically exhausting.
This superlative game of cat-and-mouse, captured 24 hours a day over four weeks, certainly lives up to its blurb as “the first ever factual thriller on television”. It’s another example of the way documentary is now merging so entertainingly with fiction, its traditional values of strong narrative and genuine social insight illuminated in ways that are modern and relevant.
Hunted has all the kinetic energy of the Jason Bourne movies, with a lot of visceral handheld jerkiness as each jittery fugitive is shadowed by a camera operative recording their time on the run, living under the same conditions.
And as in the case of 24, the pacing is intense, the screen bombarding us with information, John Hurt as Tom Kendle in
top; counterterrorism experts in Hunted, above left, search for reality-TV ‘fugitives’, such as the one above
The and the series carries a similar sense of visual hyperactivity.
The cameras film as the absconders run down main streets to ATMs while hiding their faces, swap vehicles, pull wigs on, stagger into deep forests to hide — though with little of Jack Bauer’s insouciance or his combat and tactical efficiency — as they try to evade capture with no outside help, just that single, silent cameraperson on their shoulder.
A disclaimer suggests much of the chase is fictionalised: “For the purposes of this series, some powers of state have been replicated, including CCTV and ANPR (automatic numberplate recognition).” But, while obviously making use of extensive — and imaginatively realised reconstructions — the series certainly gives an impression of authenticity in reproducing the state’s ominous powers in this entertaining social experiment exploring the balance between privacy and security.
Sure, it’s a rollicking TV game, but it does ask many perplexing questions about freedom and state surveillance — and just happens to be a rattling good thriller as well.
Thursday, 8.30pm, SBS Two. Wednesday, 8.30pm, ABC Two.