The Weekend's TV: The Killing, Sat, BBC4
Imagine: The Trouble with Tolstoy, Sun, BBC1
Number one detectives
Monday 28 March 2011
Did you make all the early down payments on the last episodes of The Killing? If you didn't, drawn in late by the rising hubbub of media attention, then I'm afraid I have to tell you that you didn't get the best of it.
This wasn't a labourers in the vineyard kind of deal, where you can pitch up at about tea-time and still get the same payoff as everybody else. And that's not because such a thing is inconceivable with a long-running thriller. It's entirely possible, after all, to catch up with the intricacies of a plot-so-far, feel pretty much the same mental itch to know as everyone else and get the same pleasure from the final scratch. What's more, conventional thrillers often mark time in the middle passages, chucking red herrings at us to stretch things out a bit until they're ready for the reveal. The Killing – which had more red herrings than a Copenhagen fish market – can't entirely be exempted from that charge, but then its length was never simply a matter of teasing delay. It was where the all substance lay. Those of us who followed didn't finally get the reward for our loyalty on Saturday night. We've been getting it for the last 10 Saturday nights.
In fact, if you'd only arrived this weekend you might have had some trouble seeing what all the fuss was about. What's been best about The Killing is its low sostenuto: not that almost inaudible thrumming on the soundtrack that stealthily ups your pulse rate to the final credits, but its recognition that the inaugurating notes of every murder mystery – loss and sorrow – reverberate on and on. The final two episodes – perhaps necessarily – were a clutter of melodramatic incident. Bremer had a heart attack on live television, just as he was about to say what he knew about the cover-up; Hartmann just happened to bump into a plumber at the flat, precipitating a confrontation with Rie; Vagn was in the Birk Larsen warehouse at the exact moment when a call came through on the answerphone, revealing that Pernille might know more than she was letting on. All the standard cliff-hanger devices, in other words, the in-the-nick-of-times and lucky coincidences that murder mysteries have always exploited.
Watching that you might well think that it was just another thriller. But then you'd have missed the impact of the barely detectable tear that ran down Lund's face as she was questioned about her partner's death. Lund crying? It seemed inconceivable, frankly, but there it was – proof of the toll that the case had been taking on her, and just enough to make you wonder whether she really had gone over the edge in her obsession. You also wouldn't have felt the odd lurch of the heart when the drama briefly let you wonder whether Theis might have been involved in the death of his daughter – evidence that the characters in the drama had become far more than playing pieces in an extended game of Cluedo. Or understood how moving it was to see Pernille and Theis smile at each other again. Even the killer was granted a certain complexity of motive, with his yearning talk of "the family" and his avuncular kindness to Pernille's boys. Best of all there were characters ultimately revealed as innocent who looked as if they'd lost all innocence in the process. Hartmann's last smile for the press was a lethally incriminating affair, the flip side of the ruthlessness he'd shown just a little while earlier in excising Rie from his life. I didn't much care for the final showdown myself, with its attendant frieze of torch-bearing policemen looming out of the woods. But I loved the final shot almost as much as anything in the series – Nanna's gravestone, the funeral wreaths starting to get a little tattered and ragged in the wind, a reminder that while murders might get solved the dead stay irresolvably dead.
Imagine: The Trouble with Tolstoy began where its subject ended – the little Russian railway station that became the focus of extraordinary national attention after Tolstoy was taken ill, and lay dying in the station master's house. By that time he was a kind of secular saint, beatified by literature and by his writings on social issues. But the first half of Alan Yentob's biographical film reminded you that it had been a difficult and painful road to veneration. The figure in the scraps of old newsreel at the beginning – a white-bearded patriarch in peasant dress – had emerged out of a self-obsession that began with childhood bereavement and adolescent confusion. The latter wasn't helped by the fact that Tolstoy's older brothers took him to lose his virginity in a Kazan brothel that overlooked his grandfather's grave, setting in train a lifetime of sexual disgust. Those finding it difficult to self-start might also take some comfort in the fact that Tolstoy knocked over most of the early hurdles. Alan Yentob described some of his youthful diary entries as Adrian Moleish, which struck you as a little irreverent. But then he backed it up with this: "Now I want to set myself one rule only... and add another one to it only when I've got used to following that one. The first rule I prescribed is as follows: 'Number One. Carry out everything you have resolved must be carried out'... I haven't carried out this rule." I don't know who the reader was, but he timed that last pause just perfectly.
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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