First

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blun­dell The Miss­ing,

There are many the­o­ries about why we love be­ing en­thralled, tan­ta­lised and of­ten be­wil­dered by crime mys­ter­ies, whether they are in lit­er­ary form or on film or TV. Maybe be­cause we live in a so­ci­ety in­fat­u­ated with bad news, we sim­ply want to see some or­der brought about, if only in fic­tion.

Then again, per­haps see­ing puz­zles solved not only gives a sense of clo­sure — the restora­tion of or­der and the right­ing of wrongs — but stim­u­lates our brains in an agree­able way. Or maybe it’s about the ap­peal of the hero, the best ones not un­like our­selves, even if we envy their phys­i­cal and men­tal qual­i­ties.

No sim­ple an­swer ex­plains why we put our­selves through such emo­tional tor­ture as we grap­ple with the fiendish machi­na­tions of writers taunt­ing us with their rid­dles of guilt and men­ace. Dis­tin­guished nov­el­ists John Con­nolly and De­clan Burke sug­gest in their won­der­ful an­thol­ogy Books to Die For, in which lead­ing crime writers guide us through the au­thors they ad­mire, that even the dark­est mys­tery “pro­vides us with a glimpse of the world as it might be, a world in which good men and women do not stand idly by and al­low the worst of hu­man na­ture to tri­umph without op­po­si­tion”.

These thoughts come to mind in the open­ing episode of sea­son two of the BBC’s The Miss­ing, so en­gross­ing and stress­ful you can’t wait for the next episode to come through. Again writ­ten by the bril­liant Wil­liams brothers, Jack and Harry, mas­ters of cliffhang­ing sto­ry­telling, its cen­tral defin­ing fea­ture is that guilt and in­no­cence are in­fu­ri­at­ingly prob­lem­atic. These writers thor­oughly sub­vert any re­as­sur­ances they es­tab­lish as their com­plex story un­folds.

The world they cre­ate — it’s done with econ­omy and taut un­der­state­ment — is the most con­vo­luted place you might imag­ine. The Wil­liams and their pol­ished di­rec­tor, Ben Chanan, con­stantly ma­noeu­vre us into var­i­ous forms of com­plic­ity then in­vert our ex­pec­ta­tions. It’s a show in which ev­ery­thing we are led to be­lieve is quickly thrown out of kil­ter and we doubt the in­no­cence of the most em­pa­thetic of char­ac­ters.

The first sea­son was hugely suc­cess­ful, nom­i­nated for Golden Globe, Emmy and BAFTA awards, and in­tro­duced us to French de­tec­tive Julien Bap­tiste, played with griz­zled in­ten­sity by French ac­tor Tcheky Karyo. It was the com­pelling story of Oliver Hughes, a boy who dis­ap­peared while on a hol­i­day in France. It fol­lowed the des­per­ate, some­times fren­zied search by his fa­ther Tony, bril­liantly played by James Nes­bitt, to find him, and the­mat­i­cally dealt with the no­tion of how a fam­ily tragedy af­fects the peo­ple in­volved.

More re­cently, the Wil­liams de­vel­oped a sim­i­lar theme in the BBC’s One of Us, a kind of pro­found moral­ity tale cen­tred on two Scot­tish fam­i­lies ripped apart by the seem­ingly sense­less mur­der of two of their chil­dren. The fam­ily mem­bers then all be­came in­volved in an­other death. It was a dense psy­cho­log­i­cal crime thriller, dubbed “fam­ily noir” by British crit­ics, that asked: what would we do in the same cir­cum­stances?

It’s the same in The Miss­ing 2, which be­gins when a young British woman stum­bles through the streets of a Ger­man town called Eck­hausen, which houses a British mil­i­tary base. The scene is shot as if for a hor­ror movie — it’s snow­ing and she moves silently among tall bare trees with a kind of su­per­nat­u­ral in­ten­sity. It is in­ter­cut with scenes from years ear­lier of a younger girl wan­der­ing off from school while watched by her anx­ious brother. She is ab­ducted by some­one in a yel­low mini-van.

As the ghostly woman col­lapses in the town square we learn it’s Christ­mas 2014 and her name is Alice Web­ster (Abi­gail Hard­ing­ham) — she has been miss­ing for 11 years. We then see her obliv­i­ous mother Gemma (Kee­ley Hawes), a teacher on the base, in the mid­dle of a class. The Wil­liams brothers set us up with the first ma­jor epi­gram­matic clue with a quote from Goethe, spo­ken by Gemma. “None are more hope­lessly en­slaved than those who falsely be­lieve they are free,” she says qui­etly, teach­ing her stu­dents about Faust, a man who sells his soul to the devil in pur­suit of power. What will that mean later on, we ask our­selves?

Gemma has dreamed of Alice’s re­turn for a decade but the re­union is hardly the stuff of dreams. Alice’s fa­ther, Sam (David Mor­ris­sey), is a tough mil­i­tary man, still frac­tured by his in­abil­ity to find and res­cue his daugh­ter. And her brother Matthew (Jake Davies) is haunted by his part in her dis­ap­pear­ance.

“We didn’t want to recre­ate the same story, we wanted to do some­thing dif­fer­ent,” says Harry Wil­liams. “Rather than los­ing some­one, it’s about find­ing some­one, and whether that is the happy end­ing that ev­ery­one thinks it is.”

It is Alice’s pos­si­ble con­nec­tion to an­other miss­ing girl, So­phie Giroux, that brings Bap­tiste, these days known as “The Great De­tec­tive Bap­tiste”, out of re­tire­ment and into the lives of the Web­ster fam­ily. The lead in­ves­ti­ga­tor of So­phie’s dis­ap­pear­ance, her case has haunted him for years, so he joins the search for Alice’s ab­duc­tor in the hope it will lead him to the girl he couldn’t find.

“Sadly such cases rarely fin­ish with all the loose ends tied in a bow,” he says in a doc­u­men­tary as he is rein­tro­duced in 2014, dis­cussing the dis­ap­pear­ance of Oliver. “This is the un­for­giv­ing na­ture of tragedy. The Oliver Hughes case was no dif­fer­ent; the truth of his death will not give his par­ents re­spite.” An­other pos­si­ble clue?

The story jux­ta­poses sev­eral time zones, some­times abruptly, largely from 2014 to the present day. Bap­tiste is look­ing for a man who had some­thing to do with both Alice and So­phie’s im­pris­on­ment in a base­ment; it might be a sol­dier called Daniel Reed whose fa­ther, Henry, took his own life (view­ers should pay close at­ten­tion to the time lapses).

Bap­tiste’s search takes him to the ISIS bat­tle­fields of north­ern Iraq. The im­pact of war is a pre­vail­ing sub­tex­tual theme, with the base’s veterans car­ry­ing a load of trau­matic mem­o­ries. Bap­tiste him­self has a brain tu­mour; he’s on the trail of one last am­bigu­ous lead, two years af­ter the case was sup­posed to be closed, and with Alice’s fam­ily still dis­tressed by her re­turn.

While it is easy in places to work out where the story is go­ing, this is a trick to pull the au­di­ence in. We are lulled into a false sense of se­cu­rity that we un­der­stand what is hap­pen­ing, and we can pin­point who is to blame. What we are then given, though, is just one line, look, enig­matic shrug or cam­era move­ment that turns ev­ery­thing on its head.

None of this is as cal­lous as it sounds; there is no per­va­sive sense of ex­ploita­tion as there some­times is in these plot-heavy, high-end thrillers. The Wil­liams brothers ap­pre­ci­ate that, as with the best mys­tery writers, char­ac­ter comes first and plot comes from char­ac­ter. They are far too clever to let nar­ra­tive fa­tigue set in with an ex­cess of one-thing-af­ter-an­other sto­ry­telling.

The act­ing is ex­em­plary, deeply felt and mes­meris­ingly nat­u­ral­is­tic, and Chanan’s di­rec­tion cre­ates an omi­nous at­mos­phere of dread and anx­i­ety. The dia­logue is min­i­mal and al­ways apt, giv­ing the char­ac­ters room to move and breathe as real peo­ple. It’s some achieve­ment. Sun­day, 8.30pm, BBC First.

David Mor­ris­sey, Kee­ley Hawes, Abi­gail Hard­ing­ham and Tcheky Karyo in The Miss­ing, above; Mor­ris­sey as tough mil­i­tary man Sam, left

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