TV & Audio
Sound and screen reviews
New crime drama ‘Taken Down’ exposes a hidden side of Ireland; Brendan Courtney makes plans for his mother and himself; and a portrait celebrating Ireland’s currently serving female politicians seems oblivious to the politics of the male gaze
Here’s an arresting idea for a police procedural: a murder mystery where the suspects are already in prison. At least, that’s the impression of Taken Down (RTÉ One, Sunday, 9.30pm), a sombre and stately crime drama from the author Jo Spain and Love/Hate creator Stuart Carolan, set largely in a direct provision centre.
It’s a risky and intelligent move. Despite the grittiness of the genre, most people watch crime drama for escapism, yet the Irish asylum process ought to be a national scandal.
How long can the Bankole family, rescued from a migrant raft, expect to stay in an Irish direct provision centre, asks the stoic Abeni Bankole (Aïssa Maïga)? A number of weeks, maybe months, she is told. Nothing is quite as jolting as the title: “Eight years later.”
This, it should be pointed out, is not the crime with which the detectives are concerned. Instead, Inspector Jen Rooney (Lynn Rafferty) must investigate the death of a young Nigerian woman, found bludgeoned to death outside the centre, a grim building near Dublin Port which couldn’t look more like a crumbling hotel in a wasteland.
Director David Caffrey matches that sense of limbo with a crepuscular Dublin shot mostly at dawn, where one character, an Algerian Muslim asylum seeker named Samir (Slimane Dazi), can never sleep. This is no kind of life.
That makes for a subtly layered drama of suspicion and suffocation. Abeni’s son Isaiah (an excellent Aaron Edo) is now a teenager, whose flirtations with the victim may bring trouble – they will be deported, Abeni reasons, “if they think we are undesirable”. Is it any wonder that Samir looks shifty, when he is always being watched? “You’re acting very suspicious,” barks a garda who’s acting very racist. Everybody has something to hide.
Concealment brings its own challenges. Rafferty’s performance, for instance, is currently muted to the point of seeming wooden. Brian Gleeson, meanwhile, as the centre’s ineffectual, prattling and presumably dissembling manager, steals every scene that isn’t nailed down.
Occasionally Taken Down falls prey to glaring clichés: the trapped man who keeps a caged songbird; the pathologist insensitively eating in the mortuary; the partner stating the bleedin’ obvious.
But in almost every other respect this counts as a major advance for an Irish television drama, recruiting genuinely new faces to major roles, telling untapped stories of a Dublin limbo, and exploring a hidden side to Ireland impossible to sensationalise.
In one appreciable irony, the most depressive character gives the show’s most optimistic maxim: “When life is turned upside-down, how do you know that the side you are used to is better than the one to come?” That could be the migrant’s credo. And for a television drama testing new ground, it bodes well for what is yet to come.
Early in Brendan Courtney’s new documentary
We Need to Talk About Mam (RTÉ One, Monday, 9.35pm) – a cross between a frank personal diary, a financial advice programme and a makeover show – the presenter catches himself in a Freudian slip.
“As soon as she calms down, we can hopefully start making some decisions for her,” the presenter says of his mother. He rolls his eyes and glances guiltily into the camera: “We…” he says, mildly mortified. “She can start making some decisions for her.”
It’s a telling moment, because if Brendan needs to talk about Mam, he may as well be talking about himself. A vivacious woman in her 70s, Nuala Courtney is gregarious, sharpwitted, caring and strikingly glamorous. It’s hardly surprising that she and her son have such a close relationship: they’re dead ringers. Hence, too, the hum of good-humoured tension between them.
Where they most differ is in their regard for the future. Brendan seizes plans the way an overboard sailor clings to driftwood. Nuala tends to go with the current.
We learn that she has no pension or nest egg, and more poignantly, in her new viduity, no real understanding of herself.
Her house is worth ¤400,000, though, Brendan estimates, decamping to the Alicante coast to explore the alternatives of sunshine, swimming pools and supermarkets. If the show is fascinatingly uneven, it’s because for all his own careful planning, Brendan can’t predict where these efforts will lead. As with that Freudian slip, director Joanne McGrath is canny to include for every jaunty conversation playing up to the cameras, a more affecting one that does not.
“The freedom,” Nuala remarks of single status. “I can do what I like now. That’s hard.”
At the age of 47, Brendan seems like the gadabout who has seen the end of the party. He can’t do everything he likes now. That’s hard. “I don’t want to be a carer,” he says flatly.
Every bright solution, however, brings
‘‘ This counts as a major advance for an Irish TV drama, recruiting genuinely new faces to major roles, telling untapped stories of a Dublin limbo, and exploring a hidden side to Ireland impossible to sensationalise
another tang of reality: the people in a manicured retirement village who lost either their spouses or their pensions; financial advice so grim it depresses even Brendan; a hard-working carpenter who was almost left homeless.
“Why didn’t he see that coming?” Brendan asks. “Why didn’t I see that coming? I suppose we don’t see it because it’s grossly unfair.”
It is. And when a tearful Nuala points out an unfairness in this whole project, urged to contemplate sunny exile, or downsizing, before she is ready or willing, it stops Brendan in his tracks.
In the end, they consider converting Nuala’s home into a granny flat with separate accommodations and it’s telling that all those prickly jokes about moving in together stop. Thinking back to a sprightly 105-year-old American they meet, living next door to his 73-year-old daughter in the same retirement community, it seems less like a quirky inclusion than one fascinating premonition.
(RTÉ One, Wednesday, 11.10pm), which documents the making of a portrait of 53 women who currently sit in the Oireachtas, on the centenary of Constance Markiewicz’s historic election to office, might have reflected on these politicians’ view of a trailblazer’s legacy. Or how those who represent us in political life now find themselves represented in art – some for the first time.
Instead it is framed as the story of the male artist and a male journalist who view them, hoping to tease out their characters with questions and polaroids under the watchful eye of director Declan McGrath. That it takes the documentary a full five minutes before we see or hear from a single woman does little to dispel the appearance of unchecked male bias.
Noel Murphy insists there is “no fixed point of view” to his painting during composition, allowing “everyone to take control of the work.” That, however, is not how his painting or the programme functions, which finds that women are for looking at and men do the looking.
Even the symbolism – unintended or otherwise – is unfortunate, where the soft-spoken Murphy dots his canvas with stickers that read “FRAGILE” to help inspire his portrait of powerful women.
In this he is assisted by the journalist Eamonn Mallie, who poses questions typical of a silvery panjandrum. Why are there so few women in politics, he asks: “Is it the difficulty, the lack of commitment, or interest of females in politics?” The assumption being that it must be their fault.
“Probably blindness on behalf of men,” responds Joan Burton when asked in a similar vein to explain why there has been no female Taoiseach. Burton is so polite and tactful that the team don’t seem to notice how she calls out the unchecked gender bias of all-male panels. Ivana Bacik is equally assured and patient when she defends the importance of gender quotas in politics towards achieving “a representative parliament – and that’s the nature of democracy.”
In some ways these sittings count as a political lesson for the artist, who will marvel at the lack of ego his subjects display while repeating the difficulty and importance of his own task. That he mingles his subjects without regard for their parties or political affinity – “to get rid of a political message” – seems like its own form of blindness. When one subject laments that female politicians are too often treated as “one homogenous bunch”, for instance, what does that say of Murphy’s imbrication of faces?
At least the politicians float some stealthy and valid art criticism. “A big scrumble of women, isn’t it?” says Bríd Smith of the crowded canvas, one of the few who expresses some insight into Markiewicz. “Will she have her gun?” she asks Murphy. The artist demurs. “Give us all guns,” she says.
Who’s fragile now?
Aïssa Maïga as Abeni in Taken Down; Brendan Courtney and his mam Nuala in We Need to Talk About Mam; artist Noel Murphy in A Woman’s Place.