Biblical. This Paramount/BBC Northern Ireland co-production set, oddly enough, in London, clearly saw itself as one of the superior breed of detectives dramas, up there with the Morses and Prime Suspects. By and large it was, although whether it warranted an epic three hours of screen time wasn’t quite so clear.
There was certainly a cracking plot, about a serial killer given to particularly cruel and unusual forms of murder, including burying alive, slow drowning and cutting out the still-conscious victim’s heart. We were treated to flashbacks of all of these, interwoven with later scenes of the detectives discussing just how sadistic they’d been, an effective tension-heightener which made the crimes seem all the more gruesome each time we cut back to them.
There was a suitably Biblical theme, too – retribution, against previous murderers who’d got away with their crimes, and the detectives who’d sent innocent men to jail in their places just in order to get a conviction. With half the Murder Squad (or, to be precise, their loved ones) on the potential target list, along with just about anyone connected to their cases, the who’s-next tension meter was soon off the scale, as was the whodunit-meter.
Cleverly set-up red herrings were everywhere, as the camera lingered moodily on likely candidates for victim or villain (or both). The plot wasn’t entirely free of weak spots (it was never made clear, for example, how the killer could be so much better than the police at spotting the real murderers in the old cases), but it kept you guessing until very near the end. Overall, it was frightening and confusing, just like it was supposed to be.
Aspirations to serious-classy status spared Messiah II an ex-soapstar lead; instead we got a solid performance from Ken Stott as DCI Red Metcalfe, with strong support including Alun Armstrong, suitably grim as his angry, ill-fated former colleague, and Emily Joyce, doing a serious version of her Delectable Young Englishwoman, from the sitcom My Hero.
If there was a flaw, it was the film’s pace, which at times was positively glacial. Perhaps it was trying to look profound; instead it looked ponderous, with some of the over-long reaction shots and repetitious dialogue seeming suspiciously like padding. Morse, arguably the classiest of all ‘tec dramas, did the business in two hours. Messiah II might have been better if it had done the same.