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Tuesday, 23 August 2016

One of Us: Why the BBC's new drama fails to hit the high notes

Contributed by Matt Donnelly

In 2014, brothers Jack and Harry Williams struck gold with eight-part drama series The Missing which gripped nation both due to its sense of mystery and its incredibly well-drawn characters. Winning several plaudits, The Missing went on to be incredibly successful which obviously puts pressure on the brothers' next big drama series to do as well. That drama is One of Us which, just like The Missing, poses several moral questions about what we'd do if we were faced with an extraordinary situation.

In The Missing that extraordinary situation was the disappearance of a five-year-old boy and the lengths his father went to to get him back. Meanwhile the primary characters in one of us have the chance to get revenge on the man who murdered one of their family members after they come face-to-face with him. The majority of the characters in One Of Us belong to two families who live side-by-side to each other in the south of Scotland. On the one side there are the Douglas family led by father Bill (John Lynch) who lives on a farm alongside wife Moira (Julie Graham) and son Jamie (Cristian Ortega). On the other side there is Louise Elliott (Juliet Stevenson) who moved to Scotland with her family in a failed attempt to save her marriage and whose children have since all decamped to Edinburgh.

One of Us' opening scenes show video footage from the wedding of Louise's son Adam's marriage to Moira and Bill's daughter Grace. In a brilliantly judged moment the camera then pans from the wedding video playing on a TV in Adam and Grace's flat to the sight of their two dead bodies. We are then initially led to believe that their murders were purely the work of a drug addict who'd broken into their flat to steal what he could. But as the episode goes on we learn that he has a connection to at least one of the central characters as he has a piece of paper with the postcode for both the Douglas and Elliott families.

After the shocking opening scene we are gradually introduced to the characters including Louise's daughter Claire (Joanna Vanderham) who works in a care home in Edinburgh. Also living in Edinburgh is Claire's other brother Rob (Joe Dempsie) who works as a gardener and is currently plotting revenge against the man who raped his long-term girlfriend Anna (Georgina Campbell). We are also spoon-fed information about the history between the two families and specifically the problems Moira has with Louise's sons. I do like how the Williams brothers don't let us know everything that's happened in the past straight away as it gives the hostility between the two families a more realistic edge.

One of Us then builds to a shocking climax when, during a storm, Grace and Adams murderer crashes between the Douglas and Elliot farms with the latter clan taking him in in order to tend to his injuries. It's only when they learn the truth about him that they decide they need to protect themselves so chain him up in a dog cage until the emergency services can get to them. But by morning the man has been murdered with all of the suspects being members of the Douglas and Elliott families with the exception of Douglas family friend Alistair (Gary Lewis). One of the elements of the script I didn't particularly like was the way in which the Williams brothers shoehorned in the drama's title about five times into the closing scenes. Almost every character uttered the line 'it had to be one of us that did it' or 'one of us in this room murdered this man', although I do understand the need to introduce the key theme of the show these lines of dialogue just didn't feel as realistic as other elements of the show.

Another part of the programme that feels underdeveloped at this stage is the character of Juliet (Laura Fraser), the detective who is going to be heading up the investigation into the murder. Instead of introducing her in the latter stages of the opening episode we were given several scenes explaining Juliet's life story. We learn that she has a daughter who suffers from a rare form of cancer and that to pay for the operation she is selling drugs on the side. I just felt there was a little bit too much going on already to introduce this slightly dodgy copper who is doing everything she can for her daughter. I just don't think enough time was properly given to Juliet's story to properly breathe and therefore I felt she just was a little lost in the shuffle.

On the plus side, it's refreshing to see the Scottish Highlands on screen. The unique setting almost becomes a character of its own in the episode's second half. William McGregor's intense direction almost made you feel the chill of the wind and the thrashing of the rain as the physical and emotional storm thrashed throughout the night. Through the setting you also got a sense of who the characters were with the Douglas family being rooted to the environment whilst the Elliotts all felt a little out of place.

When they were given their chance to shine the cast were uniformly excellent with Juliet Stevenson being the stand out for me as damaged matriarch Louise Elliott. Stevenson was great at hinting at Louise' past through her body language and I felt she shared a natural chemistry with both Joe Dempsie and Joanna Vanderham who played her children. Vanderham was similarly impressive as the most caring of all of the characters and I found that after the first episode I sympathised the most with Claire. Although she was in the background for most of the first episode, the brilliant Georgina Campbell shone in a handful of scenes in which her character Anna talked about what she wanted to do to the man who raped her.

While the opening episode wasn't nearly as gripping as the first installment of The Missing the Williams brothers' highland thriller still had its moments. The opening five minutes brought the audience into the action brilliantly whilst the tense build up to the murder in the barn was equally as excellent. Furthermore the acting and direction of the piece were both top notch and I feel the majority of the cast will step up when the script asks them to do so. At the moment what I'm really after is more information about the characters because at this point I don't feel I can really sympathise with any of them despite the tragic event that has befallen all of them.

I'm just hoping that going forward the Williams brothers focus on getting us to understand and like the characters more so we can truly care about their loss. If this does happen then I think One of Us could well become one of the best TV dramas of the year however if it doesn't then it may well just be another well-made but ultimately unmemorable crime thriller. The other big worry is that they've perhaps tried to pack too much in to what is existentially a four hour piece of drama. Either way, I think I'll be sticking around.

One of Us Continues Tuesday at 9.00pm on BBC One. 


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