Death and Nightingales review: Jamie Dornan’s cheekbones are more expressive than his expressions

A barrel of laughs this is not

Ed Cumming
Wednesday 28 November 2018 23:00
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Death and Nightingales: Trailer

It is not hard to distinguish between Death and Nightingales, BBC2’s new three-part period drama, and a barrel of laughs. We might have guessed. The series is billed as “an epic tale of love, betrayal, deception and revenge set in the Irish countryside in 1885”. In this era of assiduous equal representation, there is surely room in the schedules for something set in Victorian Ireland that shows a load of characters having a rollicking good time, sinking pints and chasing each other round the pub, but the wait continues.

There is one good joke in the first episode when Beth Winters (Ann Skelly), celebrating her 23rd birthday (it’s 25 in the source novel by Eugene McCabe), is asked by her stepfather, Billy (Matthew Rhys), how she’ll be spending the big day. Churning butter and killing a pig, she replies. No, she doesn’t want the concert tickets he has bought her. What Billy doesn’t realise is that she is planning to murder him. As a girl, she learnt he was not really her father, but in exchange for her good behaviour he promised her a share of his family’s ill-gotten French gold. As she’s grown older, his attentions have become less fatherly and her desires darker.

Into this cheery scenario walks Liam (Jamie Dornan), mysterious but magnetic, to stir the pot. To be fair to Dornan, he can’t act, but he does at least seem to realise this. He broods instead. His cheekbones at rest are more expressive than his expressions. He knows that with features as rarefied as his, it is only a matter of time before the audience furiously starts to project their hopes and fears onto him. The combination worked well enough in The Fall for its creator, Allan Cubitt, to bring him back here. Still, it’s a contrast to Skelly, his 21-year-old co-star, who brims with tight-lipped fury and mischief, and is easily the best thing in the opening episode.

The subject matter would be maudlin enough without the extra gloominess imposed by the production, which gives it the full Celtic chiaroscuro. People are forever emerging from sculleries or disappearing into the shadows of their hats. No wonder they all feel like they’ve been left in the dark.

The music doesn’t lighten the mood. No sooner has someone mumbled some plan or admonishment than the fiddles strike up and we are treated to another sweeping shot of the scenery, some grassy hill or brackish body of water.

The series gets its title from a line about Keats. It’s clear who the songbird is meant to be. The desired tone, I think, is a kind of Ulster version of Deadwood, a creation parable for the problems of the 20th century, but there is a fine line between powerful and self-parodic. Without a novel’s finesse and complex sense of interiority, the characters fail to make us care. As the credits roll, it is hard not to be reminded of Keats’ final thought in “Ode to a Nightingale”: do I wake or sleep?

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