A Confession review: Another ‘beautiful dead girl’ drama lacking in real surprise

Despite a strong cast and presumably better intrigue to come, ITV’s latest true-crime drama struggles to achieve lift-off

Adam White
Tuesday 03 September 2019 07:00
Trailer: A Confession

Too much television has been built on the backs of beautiful dead women. ITV, in particular, is about as indebted to young dead bodies as they are to Simon Cowell, their schedules regularly packed with murky crime dramas in which grieving parents hold back tears, detectives glower over CCTV footage and vanished girls gaze smilingly out of missing posters.

A Confession is the latest to mine familiar territory, with detectives examining a dead girl’s sexual history for potential clues, and the show uncomfortably cutting to adverts as police unearth an abandoned “pair of knickers” in the undergrowth where her body may be. That A Confession is based on true events only enhances the feeling of icky voyeurism, the very real disappearance and murder of 22-year-old Sian O’Callaghan in 2011 providing material for writer Jeff Pope to craft cliffhangers, plot twists and red herrings.

In fairness to Pope, one of the key figures behind the last decade of British true crime on television, there was a fascinating legal conundrum at the heart of the investigation into O’Callaghan’s disappearance. So sure that the young woman was still alive after she failed to return from a night out, Detective Superintendent Steve Fulcher (nicely underplayed in the series by Martin Freeman) personally interrogated the man he believed knew of her whereabouts without a solicitor present. He was aware that by doing this he was jeopardising his own career and potential future charges against the suspect.

A Confession’s first episode doesn’t get there quite yet, however. It is cripplingly low on moments of interest, hinging on intrigue to keep us invested, or at least pre-existing awareness of what’s to come. Rather, it laboriously spins through a routine missing-persons investigation, the sleepy suburbs and forests of Swindon providing backdrop to a number of scenes that have long passed into crime drama ubiquity. O’Callaghan’s boyfriend is interrogated, surveillance footage is paused, rewound and analysed, the maverick detective spots something his less eagle-eyed underlings don’t. Much of the first episode is painstakingly realistic, but also dramatically inert.

Rescuing it, and likely the remainder of the six-part series, is Siobhan Finneran, whose work as O’Callaghan’s mother Elaine is so far the one element of A Confession that provokes real surprise. “We have to be that terrified family,” Elaine says shortly before taking part in a televised press conference appealing for her daughter’s safe return. “Maybe one of us will cry on cue?” she adds, Elaine heartbreakingly familiar with the ins and outs of what happens in the event of a young woman’s disappearance.

Like us watching at home, she too has ingested our cultural obsession with missing girls, in reality and on television series like A Confession. It is a bleakly truthful moment of humanity, but one that, presumably unintentionally, speaks to why these true crime dramas aren’t particularly needed anymore.

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