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Wednesday, January 27, 2010


A resounding critical and popular success upon its BBC debut in 1985, the six-part serial EDGE OF DARKNESS is an intelligent thriller that will bore those looking for superficial sensation while offering more patient viewers a richly rewarding experience.

Yorkshire detective and widower Ronald Craven (Ben Peck) has just arrived home one rainy night with his political activist daughter Emma (Joanne Whalley, WILLOW) when a gunman steps out of the shadows with a shotgun and opens fire. Emma leaps in front of her father and is killed before the gunman escapes. Heartbroken, Craven journeys to London on a quest to track down what he and his boss believe to be one of his old enemies. But the deeper he digs, the more he begins to believe that his daughter was the prime target due to the efforts of her group, GAIA, to expose a nearby nuclear waste facility called Northmoor which has been illegally storing plutonium.

I honestly thought this was going to be one of those violent "father's revenge" stories and was pleasantly surprised to find how wrong I was at every turn. Rather than turning into an inhuman killing machine wiping out easy targets left and right (not that there's anything wrong with that), Craven's humanity comes increasingly to the fore as his daughter's cause begins to resonate with him and his main goal becomes a desire to finish what she started. This involves duplicating an ill-fated raid by her anti-nuclear group GAIA on Northmoor's subterranean storage facility and successfully recovering the plutonium, at the risk of his own life.

To this end, Craven begins to receive help from a couple of government insiders with similar interests, Pendleton (Charles Kay) and Harcourt (Ian McNeice, ACE VENTURE: WHEN NATURE CALLS), whose prissy characters supply some of the story's droll comic touches. His main ally, however, is CIA agent Darius Jedburgh (Joe Don Baker), a brash Texan who loves the cloak-and-dagger stuff almost as much as a good game of golf. Representing Washington's interests in the matter, Jedburgh accompanies Craven on the daring underground search for Northmoor's plutonium "hot cell" (still littered with the corpses of irradiated workers and GAIA members murdered by the plant's security) which takes up most of episode five and gives the series some of its most riveting moments.

Bob Peck, who played the steely-eyed game warden in JURASSIC PARK, is fascinating to watch because his performance as Ronald Craven is so subtle and intense. Rarely demonstrative in demeanor, there's always a lot going on in his deceptively placid face and wary eyes, making even the slightest emotional outburst all the more effective. His character is allowed much screen time after his daughter's death to actually deal with his grief in a believable way, and it's through that perspective that we view all subsequent events.

As a lead character, Craven's an intriguingly odd duck. While going through Emma's things after her death, he comes across her "personal vibrator" and wistfully kisses it. For him, questioning a suspect is a slow process which includes holding his hand in a loving manner and forming an almost affectionate bond that helps to facilitate a willing candor. His mental state is in question as well, particularly when he begins to see and converse with Emma on a regular basis. His growing fanaticism as the story unfolds--or "greening", one might say--makes him more and more unpredictable in his quest to bring down the rich, power-hungry despoilers of the earth responsible for Emma's death.

Troy Kennedy Martin's screenplay is filled with interesting characters, witty dialogue, and political intrigue, with occasional bursts of suspenseful action. Future "Bond" director Martin Campbell's direction is good--a bit claustrophobic at times, though likely intentionally so--and early signs of his later style are evident here. It's easy to see why, ten years later, Campbell would cast Joe Don Baker as CIA agent Jake Wade in GOLDENEYE. Baker gives perhaps the finest performance of his career as Darius Jedburgh--as often as I've seen him in various things over the years, I still had no idea he was capable of being this good.

Most impressive is a later scene in which he addresses a gathering of business and military bigwigs during a conference on nuclear energy, working himself into a blustering, bellowing frenzy with a block of plutonium in each hand and turning the event into a panic-stricken stampede. Baker also relishes delivering some of the film's headiest dialogue such as the following:

"You ever been to Dallas, Craven?"
"No, sir."
"It's where we shoot our presidents. The Jews got their Calvary, but we got Dealey Plaza!"

The rest of the cast is dotted with familiar faces and fine performances. I recognized Jack Watson and Allan Cuthbertson from British shows such as "The Avengers" and "Fawlty Towers", and Zoe Wanamaker, who plays Jedburgh's associate and Craven's fleeting love interest Clementine, has recently appeared in the "Harry Potter" films. Fans of AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON will instantly recognize white-haired actor John Woodvine as Craven's boss. I was especially pleased to see Kenneth Nelson, so effective as the star of William Friedkin's classic BOYS IN THE BAND, as the evil corporate executive Grogan.

The two-disc DVD set from BBC Warner in in 4.3 full-screen with an English mono soundtrack and English subtitles. Extras include: a slightly-different alternate ending; a music-only track to highlight the fine score by Eric Clapton and Michael Kamen; a photo gallery; a lengthy featurette with cast and crew interviews; and some dry but informative British TV segments featuring interviews, reviews, and scenes from the BAFTA and Broadcasting Press Guild award shows where EDGE OF DARKNESS was a big winner.

Slow doesn't always mean boring, especially when a story has the substance this one has, and the deliberate pace with which EDGE OF DARKNESS unfolds is highly satisfying. I'll admit, I had trouble following some of the intricacies of the plot, but as Steward Lane of the Broadcasting Press Guild puts it in one of the DVD extras, "It was so marvelous 'cause you didn't really know what was going on most of the time...which made it most compulsive viewing." And although it didn't leave me with as strong a fadeout as I'd hoped, I was still thinking about those black flowers for quite awhile afterward.


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