Over the past few years, it’s becoming gradually more acceptable for bona fide movie stars to appear in TV series with the likes of Sean Penn, Jim Carrey and Julia Roberts all fronting shows last year. This week, Roberts’ Pretty Woman co-star Richard Gere joins their ranks by starring in BBC Two’s multi-layered drama MotherFatherSon. Created by Tom Rob Smith, who penned the brilliant Assassination of Gianni Versace, MotherFatherSon sees Gere play media baron Max Finch; the owner of The National Reporter newspaper and a man who is presented as majorly influential in the political sphere.
The opening scene sees Max arrive in London, whilst his assistant Lauren (Pippa Bennet-Warner) spells out the character’s intention for the audience by asking if he wants to start by picking the new Prime Minister or sorting out his son? It’s certainly clear that his son Caden (Billy Howle) needs sorting out as we see him in changing into a suit in his office whilst snorting cocaine and looking incredibly worn out. Caden’s appearance coincides with the firing of one of The National Reporter’s longest-serving journalists Maggie (Sinead Cusack), who apparently is being dismissed for being disloyal. This decision is one of many that Max is unhappy with when he finally sees his son and from then on, he just appears constantly disappointed in his son. This includes a scene in which Max is shown round Caden’s plush yet empty apartment complete with extra-sharp butcher knives and a fridge which is full of bottled water and beer.
Whilst in London, Max’s other purpose appears to be meeting the current Prime Minister (Danny Sapani) and the leader of the opposition Angela Howard (Sarah Lancashire) to assess who the paper will give their backing to. Max’s meeting with the Prime Minister is set around a very bizarre conversation around shortbread, with the media mogul being completely befuddled by the Scottish biscuit. Conversely, his meeting with Howard is presented as more of a battle of wits with the politician basing her campaign on not lying to the voting public. This was certainly one of my favourite scenes, primarily as it was the only one to feature Sarah Lancashire, I’m hoping to see more of Angela Howard as the series progresses.
The other side of the episode follows Caden’s mother Kathryn (Helen McCrory), who is seen working at a soup kitchen and forming a bond with Scott, a former banker who has fallen on hard times (Joseph Mawle). Small hints are dropped about Kathryn’s life throughout this first episode as she barely interacts with either her son or her ex-husband. One of the best scenes in the episode occurs when Kathryn meets with Caden at a restaurant where he reveals that a rival paper wants to run a story about his mother’s alleged relationship with Scott. This scene is perfectly played as the meeting starts in a private room as Caden wants the meeting to be somewhat clandestine before Kathryn takes charge and forces him to sit in the main restaurant. Helen McCrory is brilliant in this scene as she forces Caden to relax and tries to engage him in a conversation about something other than work.
Unfortunately for Caden, his life is dominated by work and this catches up with him in a graphic manner when he suffers a stroke during the episode’s final moments. This scene is brilliantly performed by Billy Howle, who has played Caden as a tortured soul throughout, as he portrays somebody whose body is starting to betray them. When I first saw this scene, I wasn’t quite sure of what was happening and it was only when this set piece concluded with Caden collapsing in a lift, that I finally realised what I was seeing. In more graphic scenes, we see doctors operating on Caden’s brain whilst a worried Kathryn looks on as she finds herself reunited with Max, who attempts to reassure her about their son.
If there’s one word I’d use to MotherFatherSon then it would be ambitious. Smith sets up numerous plot threads all of which are in their infancy by the end of this first episode. For example, I haven’t even spoken about the undercover investigation by a National Reporter journalist (Paul Ready) who decides to team up with Maggie to take the Finch family down. However, at the press screening for the drama, Smith revealed that his main inspiration for writing the drama was after a friend of his suffered a major stroke. From hearing Smith speak, it seems that the drama is primarily about Caden’s stroke, and seeing as that occurred towards the final moments of tonight’s episode I feel we’ve just scratched the surface of what MotherFatherSon can offer. Because of this, reviewing Smith’s drama based on the opening episode feels like a rather hard task, but I’ll do my best regardless.
Anybody who watched The Assassination of Gianni Versace knows that Smith can craft a set piece and that’s evident in this first episode. As I’ve previously mentioned, my favourite of these set pieces was Kathryn and Caden at the restaurant, which was built up beautifully and told you so much about the characters. The final scenes of Caden’s stroke are similarly well-constructed as is the meeting between Max and Angela Howard. However, other moments don’t quite hit the mark for me, primarily the incredibly strange sex scene involving Caden barking instructions at his female companion. This scene felt like Smith was needlessly pushing the envelope and spoilt the flow of the episode in my opinion.
Although he’s promoted as the series’ big name, I felt that Richard Gere overplayed most of the scenes he was a part of. Although he was able to display Max’s arrogance, I don’t think he brought enough charm to the character, which is usually one of Gere’s strengths. Based on the final scene, I believe we’ll get to see more of Max and Kathryn together which should help give more context to the character. It will also mean we’ll get to see Gere and Helen McCrory on screen together which will be great as, for me, she was the highlight of this first episode. McCrory breathed so much life into Kathryn and made her character the most likeable of the bunch. Furthermore, I felt that McCrory shared brilliant chemistry with Joseph Mawle especially in the scene where Kathryn visits Scott in his flat. Elsewhere, I wasn’t particularly taken by Billy Howle’s turn as Caden at first, but he grew on me as the episode continued as he portrayed the complexities of his character.
Overall, I do feel it’s too early to judge the series on tonight’s opener and I feel it will take at least one, if not a couple of episodes to truly decide if I’ll be sticking with it. Whilst I liked the scope of the series and the performances from McCrory and Mawle, I felt that some of the dialogue was quite clunky and that Gere overplayed some of his scenes. While I’ll definitely be continuing with MotherFatherSon, primarily to see where the drama goes next, I’m hoping that I start to warm Richard Gere a little bit more especially as he’s been heavily promoted as the series’ big star.
MotherFatherSon Continues Wednesday at 9.00pm on BBC Two