The Stranger, review: Jennifer Saunders thriller is macabre and gruesome – but it’s also funny

Netflix’s new adaptation of a Harlan Coben novel shows its machinery so nakedly that it almost defies you to switch off

Ed Cumming
Thursday 30 January 2020 15:52 GMT
The Stranger - trailer

The Stranger (Netflix) is a Danny Brocklehurst adaptation of a Harlan Coben novel, transposed from New Jersey to Manchester. It’s billed as a psychological thriller, which is usually code for the plot revolving around suburban shagging rather than spies and guns. Richard Armitage plays Adam Price, a lawyer with an enviable life: good job, big house, fashionably landscaped garden, two friendly and accomplished sons. Best of all, he is married to Corinne (Dervla Kirwan), bright, gorgeous and a popular teacher at the kids’ school.

One day, with Corinne out of town at a conference, Adam attends a “dads and lads” football match. A mysterious woman (Hannah John-Kamen), a man in the novel, approaches him in the bar afterwards to change his life. She tells him that Corinne faked a miscarriage and suggests he run a paternity test on his boys. She tells him to call her The Stranger, then drives off before he can get a picture of the numberplate. When Corinne returns, Adam confronts her, having checked an online clue the Stranger gave him. She admits she owes him an explanation, but says she needs time to prepare. Then she vanishes, too, leaving Adam to look after the kids.

So begins the unravelling of the Prices’ apparently perfect life. Most thrillers would shy away from introducing a character as “The Stranger”, who arrives and lobs mysteries into people’s lives, and it takes some chutzpah to be so brazen. Who is she and what’s her game? Stay tuned to find out.

Meanwhile, a parallel plot is under way, involving a boy from school who is found naked and injured in the woods after a rave. DS Johanna Griffin (Siobhan Finneran) and sidekick Wes (Kadiff Kirwan, no relation to Dervla) are on the case, as well as investigating the gruesome murder of an alpaca. This is where things start to get weird. Perhaps this is just prejudice against more familiar subjects, but what might seem noirish in an American setting gains a comical aspect in Britain. It’s macabre and gruesome but also funny, in that Hot Fuzz-ish way. I’m not sure if it’s meant to be, but then Jennifer Saunders arrives as Johanna’s best mate, Heidi, and you don’t cast Saunders unless you’re playing it partly for laughs. What does the Stranger have in store for her?

There are enough unanswered riddles to draw out over eight hours of drama. Armitage and Dervla Kirwan are convincing as the professionals harbouring dark secrets, while Finneran makes a suitably beleaguered detective, trying to do her job while worrying about how to leave her husband. Kadiff Kirwan is more out of place as her bumbling junior.

The bigger question is whether you care enough to wait for the answers. The Stranger is a curious beast, an almost-pure mystery, which shows its machinery so nakedly that it almost defies you to switch off. Whether you binge the entire series in an afternoon or hurl the controller out of the window in frustration will depend mainly on your tolerance for being mucked around.

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