review

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"I turn into a wolf, once a month, when it's full moon," says Alice to her psychotherapist, after he has prodded her to be a bit more candid about her problems. Naturally, he takes this to be a metaphor, dense with Freudian potential; in his mind he can already read the glowing reviews for his book about the case. But it isn't - it's literally true, a fact that immediately gives Wilderness (ITV) considerable problems of equilibrium. If Alice's wolf is a metaphor, then everything we see is a potential tragedy - one of repressed sexuality and murderous insanity. If, on the other hand, the wolf is real, then the story begins to tug, like a dog spotting a lamppost, towards a comedy of inconvenience.

At times the writers, Andrew Davies and Bernadette Davis, clearly intend to let the leash out, as when we see the petite Alice buying 15 pounds of rump steak for her dinner. At other points, you're less sure about what they have in mind: "I need to get to grips with this wolf thing," she says to her therapist, as if turning into a savage beast and dining on unwary pedestrians is little more than a mild eating disorder. Because the writers aren't intent on terror alone (because their werewolf isn't simply the monster outside), they are bound to acknowledge the awkward logistics of combining the lifestyle of an urban librarian with occasional wolfhood, and this can't but undermine the solemnity of the occasion. When Alice protests that "shitting on newspapers" is incompatible with a civilised life, you do wonder why she hasn't thought of constructing a giant litter tray for her monthly fur-and-fang sessions - after all, the wolf appears to be marginally house-trained already.

But as it isn't intent on mere terror, it is also far more interesting than it might have been, particularly in the way that it plays with ideas of predation and animal instincts. Alice has gone to her therapist because she prowls hotels picking up rich businessmen for one-night stands; we see her in a swimming pool surrounded by vulpine-looking characters who clearly think she is just a little defenceless lamb. The dialogue is aware, too, of the little patches of wilderness that remain in the language: "Good hunting," teases one of Alice's colleagues when she leaves early one night, supposedly on a date. That's a touch obvious perhaps, but when her new love interest, Dan, says "How do you fancy sloping off somewhere a bit quieter?" the line has a wry quiver of energy restored to it. We know that Alice is much better at sloping around than he can possibly imagine. It is also a nice joke to make penguins his academic specialism - as one of the least menacing animals alive, they suggest that Owen Teale's chunky-knit cosy manliness is intentional, not just an off-note in the casting.

Even the fantastical elements are played with a nice eye for the embarrassments that might arise if such a thing were true. As the psychotherapist, Michael Kitchen delivers a wonderful picture of constrained arousal - half sex and half ambition. This delivers both comedy - as in the scene in which he tries to reconcile his incredulity with the professional etiquette of not repudiating the client - and something a bit breathier, as when he fastidiously refuses to give Alice a physical examination, forcing her to demonstrate her wolfishly heightened sense of smell by telling him exactly what he had for lunch and pointing out that he's becoming sexually excited.

Kitchen's character is doomed, I would guess, academic rationalisation being a capital offence in werewolf stories, but he helps considerably while he survives. I'm not sure, either, if the writers can go anywhere but down, having conclusively burned their boats as far as therapeutic cure is concerned, but this far their balancing act has been quite impressive - creating a drama which is knowingly funny enough not to be entirely risible.

Comments