Criminal review: Netflix’s interrogation drama is both an intriguing and claustrophobic experiment in intensity

It is as if the showrunners of this new series watched the interrogation scenes in Line of Duty and decided to make a series exclusively out of them

Ed Cumming
Thursday 19 September 2019 16:18 BST
Criminal UK trailer

Netflix is keen for us to know that its new crime drama, Criminal, is “ambitious”, but not in an exciting way. There aren’t car chases or shoot-outs or explosions. Instead, this Criminal’s tendencies are conceptual. It tells 12 stories across four countries – the UK, France, Spain and Germany – in four languages, although everything was filmed in Madrid. Almost all the action takes place in an interview room, with occasional breaks to see the police observing from the other side of a two-way mirror and a breakout room where they have coffee.

It is as if the showrunners, George Kay and Jim Field Smith, watched the interrogation scenes in Line of Duty and decided to make a series exclusively out of them. The viewers must make their minds up about what happened based purely on what the suspects and police say, without seeing the events. “Without being too grand,” Kay said in an interview, “you don’t need any more than three rooms in any kind of drama.” A surprising sentiment from one of the writers of Killing Eve, which flits to a new European city every six seconds.

If it was being aired on a less spendthrift channel we might think Criminal’s simplicity was a creative solution to a small budget, but this is Netflix, and as well as being ostentatiously international it has made a statement by casting David Tennant and Hayley Atwell for the three British episodes, along with Youssef Kerkour, who plays a lorry driver accused of abandoning a truck full of refugees.

As the first episode opens, Tennant’s character, Dr Edgar Fallon, stares down the camera, suspicious and suspected, a thick beard around his neck. “No comment,” he says, to every question. His 14-year-old stepdaughter has been found dead in the woods with “no knickers”, a skull shattered into 17 pieces and a bag-for-life over her head. It’s just him, two police officers and a lawyer. The implication is that he is a Humbert Humbert figure, who has been abusing the young woman on a netball tour. Atwell’s character, in the second episode, is thought to have poisoned someone.

Criminal is an intriguing experiment in intensity, aided by set and sound design that ramps up the claustrophobia. From outside the room, the two-way mirror is framed by a bright, thin red light. Inside the room, the same light is white. The strain of the process takes its toll on the police, who are the same in each episode, as well as the suspects. Best is Rochenda Sandall, last seen in Line of Duty, as a copper, Vanessa, looking to make the step up to interrogation.

Criminal uses its small canvas to ask big questions. The focus on these intricate dances means that after a while we begin to question the idea of objective truth, as well as the facts at hand. I have no idea if it is a realistic depiction of detective work, but it makes for gripping drama.

Criminal is available on Netflix from Friday 20 September

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