The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe review: Did the story of the ‘Canoe Man’ really need to leave us this depressed?

The juxtaposition of a ludicrous crime with a gritty depiction of a manipulative, controlling relationship doesn’t work: it leaves both sides of that drama feeling oddly unsatisfying

The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe trailer

In the past couple of years, ITV’s commitment to adapting any British true-crime story has taken them from the sombre gravity of Stephen, about murdered schoolboy Stephen Lawrence, and Des, a look at the capture of serial killer Dennis Nilsen, to the more eccentric: Hatton Garden, about a gang of old-timers robbing London’s diamond district, and their hit show, Quiz, the tale of the coughing major on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Where will this creative obsession end? A horrifying feature-length reconstruction of the life of the bloke who shoved a flare in his arse at the Euros final? A forensic six-part series about the origins of the cat bin lady?!

The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe is the latest instalment in ITV’s campaign to dramatise every crime committed in the United Kingdom, however quotidian. It tells the story of John and Anne Darwin, played by top TV talents Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan, a Hartlepool couple who made headlines through the 2000s after John faked his death in a canoeing accident. John is a dreamer, a man who, in the words of his wife (who narrates proceedings throughout), would “buy a Range Rover he couldn’t afford, and then spend £3,000 on a personalised number plate; all before we’d got the gas connected”. But those aspirations land him in hot water – and then the very cold water of the North Sea – as the debts mount up and his options dwindle.

The fact that John Darwin will always be known to the press and public as “Canoe Man” indicates the farcical quality of this, if not wholly victimless, then certainly bodyless, crime. But writer Chris Lang understands that the audience cannot be expected to sympathise with anonymous insurance companies, so the conflict instead centres on the married couple. Marsan’s John is a Walter Mittyish bully, coercing his wife into the plan. “I’d genuinely prefer to end it all than face the shame of bankruptcy,” he tells her, as he forces her into his baffling plot, “I just couldn’t bear it.” Dolan’s Anne, therefore, becomes a truculent participant in the ruse. “No one is queuing up for a woman like you, Anne,” he tells her on the eve of his departure, leaving the audience begging her to weigh the canoe down with stones.

Marsan – who looks, let’s face it, like nobody in the world other than Eddie Marsan – brings a clownish physicality to John. As the buffoon emerges from the waves in a tight-fitting wet suit, he looks like a stage of evolution somewhere between man and haddock. Dolan, meanwhile, imbues Anne with buttoned-up fury: her reluctance to join the scheme gives way to a mania of frustration as things snowball out of control. But for all the Punch and Judy elements, and the inherent comedy of the set-up (John returns to live in a bedsit next door, slipping into his former home for morning fry-ups via a coffin-shaped interconnecting passage), The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe never catches fire. The juxtaposition of the ludicrous crime with a gritty depiction of a manipulative, controlling relationship doesn’t work: it leaves both sides of that drama feeling oddly unsatisfying. Not funny enough to lean into its dark comedic credentials, but not serious enough to say anything about domestic abuse.

“This is the life I really want,” John tells Anne, as he sits alone, locked in a bedsit playing dirty video games, “with you.” The Darwins’ life in Hartlepool, before they manage to flee to the more exotic climes of Panama, has a poignant quality of bathos. But as the drama, and Anne’s life, unravels, the exceptional mundanity of the crime and its perpetrators gives way to something bleaker and more procedural. It’s hard to watch the bereaved (but not bereaved) Anne tearfully screaming into the roiling waves off Seaton Carew without asking: did the story of the Canoe Man need to leave me this depressed?

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