Review of the best of the week
Death And Nightingales, BBC Two, Wednesday, 9pm
You have to feel for Jamie Dornan. The Northern Irish actor, so unsettling as sex killer Paul Spector in dark 2013 crime series The Fall, became a superstar of sorts two years later when he was cast as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades Of Grey.
But so fixed is he in the public imagination in that role that now every other part he takes seems to play out like some spin-off from the ooh-la-la film franchise.
Death And Nightingales is no different. It’s easy to see why he was cast as Liam Ward in this three-part adaptation of Eugene McCabe’s acclaimed 1992 novel – clue number one: it’s written by Allan Cubitt, creator of The Fall – but as last week’s opening episode drifted onwards it was hard to take him and it seriously at points. Moments of ponderous dialogue and some clunky exposition didn’t help matters.
Thank heavens, then, for co-star Matthew Rhys as conflicted Billy Winters, Protestant owner of the County Fermanagh quarry where the Catholic Ward worked and father to the woman with whom Ward was in love: pale, intense Beth Winters (Ann Skelly), celebrating her 23rd birthday on the day the drama opened.
The year, by the way, was 1885, so we were in an Ireland as yet undivided and still relatively untroubled.
Beth’s mother was long dead and, disgusted by Billy’s drunken sexual advances, she (Beth) had determined to take matters into her own hands. That Billy could never remember these events and anyway wasn’t her biological father – one of several key facts we learned in flashback – doesn’t really matter, though there was enough nuance to the script and to Rhys’s performance to add shades of grey (sorry) to what might otherwise have been a monochrome character. Billy is a drunk with dark longings who makes no secret of his religious bigotry, but in other ways he is righteous and honest.
Those reservations aside, Death And Nightingales promises twists and drama, so there’s no reason to stop watching. A bishop visiting Billy hinted at Ward’s dark side and an opening dream sequence (or was it?) in which Beth tried to force a penitent Billy to drink poison was a neat foreshadowing of the proposal Ward appeared to make Beth as episode one closed.
Sequestered in a lochside cottage, naked in front of a fire after having had sex together for the first time, they cooked up a plan to drug Billy, steal his gold then flee together across the sea. Or was there more to it than that? “One thing is certain,” said Beth in a dramatic closing voiceover, “God will not smile on what is planned for tonight.” What dark deeds did she have in mind? Tune in next week to see.
Ann Skelly and Matthew Rhys in Death And Nightingales