There is something deliciously satisfying about yuppie nightmare films. We all relish the Schadenfreude of seeing these self-styled "masters of the universe" get their comeuppance. Think of Bonfire of the Vanities, Something Wild or After Hours. Now there is a new addition to the genre. In BBC1's Split Second, we can again enjoy the frisson of witnessing the downfall of a hubristic yuppie.
In this piece, directed by David Blair, Clive Owen plays Michael Anderson, an Edinburgh legal executive who is forever closing major deals and acting the corporate big cheese. His world begins to implode, however, when he is driving home after a high-pressure day. Embroiled in a pointless road- rage incident with a weaving cyclist, Michael fatally knocks him off his bike on a deserted stretch of road. Terrified, he leaves the scene of the crime without reporting it. From that moment on, his life of cosy suburban respectability unravels.
As dark, stress-induced rings appear under his eyes, he is haunted by flashbacks to the incident, and begins to behave erratically towards his wife (Helen McCrory) and children. He can no longer take the unrelenting pressure of his job. "This is all I do, day after day, just to stop the whole thing falling apart," he shouts with increasing desperation.
Owen, who is best known for such provocative work as the incest drama Close My Eyes, Bent, about gay love in a concentration camp, and Closer, Patrick Marber's tough play about relationships, is well cast as the tortured yuppie. According to Kate Swan, the producer of Split Second, "he has great vulnerability and sensitivity in his eyes and his body language. He perfectly captures Michael's inner turmoil. Split Second is a deeply sensitive portrayal of a man, which is rare."
Tony Curran, who plays a fellow legal eagle, chips in: "With Clive, the eyes are the window of the soul. They tell a hell of a lot of the story."
In everything he has done - including the popular dramas Chancer, Sharman and An Evening with Gary Lineker - Owen has had the ability to say a lot without words. This is underlined in his next project, Second Sight, a Paula Milne drama for BBC1, in which he plays a detective battling against failing eye-sight. "Unnecessary lines can ruin things," he says. "Often characters will say something that exposes what they're like, and I'll say `I don't need to voice that. I'm doing it for two hours'. Montgomery Clift used to strip out his own lines - `out, out, out, we don't need that'. Less is more."
During his research for the role in Split Second, Owen didn't envy the corporate life he observed. "I went round this huge insurance office, and the most extraordinary thing was the smokers' `cage', a sectioned- off part of the underground car park, which had 20 people literally caged in, puffing away. It looked totally humiliating. Thank God I live in a totally different world. I could never have worked in an office."
Sipping tea in the lounge of an upmarket central London hotel, Owen reckons that James Mavor's script for Split Second really brings out that sense of a faceless corporation grinding down its employees. "It's to do with the lack of personability at these organisations," he says. "You don't engage with anyone there. Everything in corporate life is about finance, so it just becomes one big machine. People have different tags around their necks that can let them into a building or buy them a cup of coffee at the machine. All that can start to get a person down."
Swan hopes the film will not only appeal to those who long to see yuppies brought down, though. "Split Second is an everyman tale. What happens to Michael Anderson could happen to any of us. How do we know that we would do the right thing and report an accident when there are no witnesses? It is the dark side of us all. Each one of us every day runs the risk of being Michael Anderson."
Or, as Martin Amis once put it: "Man's greatest ambition is to get through life without killing another man - as soon as you step into a car, you take that risk."
`Split Second' is on BBC1 at 9.30pm on Thur
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