If you’re familiar with the Chris Lang juggernaut that is Unforgotten, then you might think you know what to expect from the talented writer in regards to Dark Heart. If this is the case, then you couldn’t be more wrong. While Dark Heart is also a crime drama, it’s a very different beast altogether. The six-part series — based on the Wagstaffe novels by Adam Creed — is less ITV and something more in the vein of what you’d expect from Netflix. It’s incredibly visual, atmospheric, and centres around a moody, disturbed detective, named DI Will Wagstaffe (Tom Riley). However, it’s also inherently compelling, and something that, once it grabs you, doesn’t let you go.
In an era where slow-burn television is all the rage, Dark Heart wastes no time beating around the bush, getting straight into the narrative from the get-go. Perhaps that’s because the series wasn’t initially commissioned as a six-part story, but rather as a one-off pilot, which aired on ITV Encore back in 2016. Some of the extreme moments of violence have been removed, which proves to be a good thing because Lang’s writing is strong enough to allow us to work out what happened for ourselves.
The premise of the first two episodes centre around a series of attacks on non-convicted paedophiles. Will and his partner DC Josie Chancellor (Anjli Mohindra) investigate, and Will becomes suspicious when they learn of a paedophile who, several years ago, got off scot-free, only to be subsequently attacked by the victim’s father (Robert Hands). There are plenty of twists and turns over the course of the two episodes and Will’s never-wavering desire for justice is what drives the series. Speaking of which, Dark Heart’s strength very much lies in its demented protagonist.
Will is damaged as a result of his parents’ murder. As his sister Juliette (Charlotte Riley) tells him, he needs to move on, and his inability to do so is cleverly conveyed by Lang via the lack of decoration in Will’s house, and his troubled relationship with Sylvie (Miranda Raison). The character’s relationship with his sister and her son Harry (Joseph Teague) is what keeps him sane, and ultimately what prevents him from taking part in the killer’s sick revenge scheme. Riley delivers a truly wonderful performance as the tormented detective, conveying Will’s true emotions with nothing more than a look.
While Lang’s writing is, as always, superb, much of Dark Heart’s charm lies in the atmospheric presentation. As mentioned earlier, it’s not your typical ITV crime drama, and it’s more visually reminiscent of something you’d be used to seeing on a streaming service — think Mindhunter, or even Marcella. It’s intentionally dull, boasting a limited colour pallet, and is finished with a grainy filmic look, which lends itself really well to the melancholic narrative. The cinematography and direction are truly top notch.
While Unforgotten might be crime-driven, it’s a piece that translates well to all viewers — no matter what type of genre you might prefer. Dark Heart isn’t the same, in that it’s unapologetically crime. It doesn’t shy away from what it is, and fully embraces all of the attributes of the genre. It won’t be everybody’s cup of tea (and it doesn’t try to be), and some might find the grisly storylines too much to stomach, but if you love a good crime thriller with a damaged detective protagonist, then Dark Heart is very much for you. What’s more, television has conditioned us to expect six-part stories, so the fact that this series will give us a new narrative next week is rather a breath of fresh air, and it’ll be interesting to see if Dark Heart can maintain the momentum after two truly compelling opening instalments.
Contributed by Stephen Patterson
Dark Heart continues on both Wednesday and Thursday on ITV at 9pm.