You have to be confident to take things this slowly. Confident to let the opening scene painstakingly bleed into the narrative as two coppers – one idealistic, the other corrupt – investigate the scene of an assassination.
A drug baron has been shot dead. The older one, Sergeant Foley (David Schofield) delights in unnerving the younger copper. It’s all part of the stratagem. Make him anxious so he’ll go along with what he wants; a cursory examination of the scene to establish how the murder was perpetrated but with little interest in the culprit.
It’s this killing that is at the core of The Shadow Line, yet, unlike more conventional thrillers, finding out who did it doesn’t seem very important. It acts as the framework to introduce characters with far more important concerns in their lives than the slaying of someone who was generally regarded as scum, even by his own associates.
One of these associates is Joseph Bede, magnificently played by Christopher Eccleston, who acts as a frontman for the dead Harvey Wratten’s ‘legitimate’ business. And that’s the way he likes it, cuddling up with his wife of an evening. But he has problem, or rather his wife does. She is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Some sort of revolutionary treatment has been mentioned, but all Joseph’s money is tied up in Wratten’s business. The only way to make more is to become more involved in the running of the drugs part of Wratten’s empire.
Easier said than done when the de facto leader should be Wratten’s nephew Jay (Rafe Spall), who is utterly unhinged and liable to fly into a violent rage at the drop of hat.
This relationship provides one of the key conflicts that helps make The Shadow Line so gripping. You can see in the eyes of Bede and Crace (Malcolm Storry), they know the only way to calm things down is to arrange for Jay to go the same way as his uncle. They give him a chance, they pack him off out of the city but within a few days he’s back again, bristling and itching for a fight. But Bede doesn’t want to take such measures, in spite of whom he works for he still has some morals.
The dilemma of Bede is mirrored on the other side of the divide between law and order by Jonah Gabriel. It’s a rather contrived device, but we know about as much as he does about the situation as he’s only recently returned to duty after being near-mortally wounded.
His lippy deputy Lia (Kierston Wareing) remarks on how he’s changed as he holds the door open for her. He doesn’t remember. He doesn’t remember either the incident in which he was wounded and his colleague was killed. He visits the home of his colleague’s parents to where he is subjected to an excruciating interrogation as they demand to know the circumstances of their son’s death, and all Gabriel can offer are sympathetic platitudes amid the protestations that he can’t remember.
Outside, his commander has no sympathy for him, sneering that he Gabriel might be faking his amnesia. This turns you against the commander and makes you side more with Gabriel. We’ve seen what he’s like, he’s a temperate, modest man, only drawn to anger by snide journalists.
Until the episode denouement, in which Gabriel discovers a suitcase of used notes stashed in his wardrobe amid his suspiciously opulent array of pin-sharp suits. It’s rather like a more traumatic bit from Total Recall when Quaid discovers he’s really Hauser and has been unwittingly working for the bad guys all along.
How deep in was Gabriel? Was in the same boat as Sergeant Foley, or does the stash have a more innocent explanation? It’s the superbly acted and written characters that are the draw in the Shadow Line, we’ve already stopped caring about who killed Wratten and are far more intrigued by how Bede will reconcile his timidity and the need to raise cash to pay for his wife’s treatment, or whether Gabriel really was on the take, and how his new moral self will deal with such a revelation.
Hugo Blick, who wrote, produced and directed, has truly created a masterpiece in simmering tension and narrative.