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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A MIND TO KILL: SERIES 3 -- DVD review by porfle

The eight feature-length episodes that appear on Acorn Media's 4-disc set A MIND TO KILL: SERIES 3 wrap up the popular Welsh TV series, which ran sporadically between 1994-2002, with a solid collection of somber tales which should be a real treat for fans of unusual police procedurals.

The aging but still highly capable Detective Chief Inspector Noel Bain (Philip Madoc) returns from hiatus to find himself in charge of a station house whose jurisdiction covers a wide area.  This takes him from the shadowy streets and back alleys of the big city to those quaint little villages where the citizens are close-knit, tight-lipped, and suspicious of outsiders. 
Two examples of the latter are "Shadow Falls" and "The Little House in the Forest", both of which use the dreary Welsh countryside to add an element of gloom to the stories.  "Shadow Falls" first aired in 1998, a full three years before the next installment in the series, and at this point the show still has the feel of a Detective Book Club selection that one might curl up with on a stormy night.  The story of two suspicious suicides that take place ten years apart and the three couples who share a terrible secret regarding the victims is interesting though not altogether engaging.  But it's a good start and things get better from here.

"Shadow Falls" introduces us newbies to Bain's personality and methods.  A veteran who's seen it all, he's quietly unflappable and a bit curmudgeonly, a genial cynic with a wry sense of humor and a faintly-flickering spark of faith in humanity.  Refreshingly, Bain is neither a supercop, a renegade loner cop, nor an eccentric genius with the near-supernatural deductive skills of a Sherlock Holmes--he's simply a world-weary detective using his sharp mind, finely-honed instincts, and years of experience in the dogged pursuit of criminals.

Two other important characters make an appearance here.  The first is Sharon Morgan as the serenely cheerful Professor Margaret Edwards, master medical examiner and nominal love interest for Bain (their relationship is kept enticingly enigmatic until the final episode).  The second is Bain's independent-minded teenage daughter Hannah (Ffion Wilkins), who trades good-natured barbs with her dad but admires him enough to want to follow in his footsteps.  In this episode we see her begin to give unsolicited aid in Bain's investigation by questioning suspects on her own; in subsequent stories, she's a newly-graduated rookie cop assigned to her father's department. 

"Box" (2001) is the bizarre urban tale of a serial killer haunted by a childhood of abuse and a severe identity crisis, whose motives for murder are almost pathetic enough to garner sympathy.  It marks a transition between the somewhat rough-hewn qualities of "Shadow Falls" and the later episodes that gradually become more finely-rendered and intriguing, in terms of both story and production elements. 

The first really fine episode, "The Little House in the Woods", keeps us guessing as to the identity of a young girl's killer, focusing also on the devastation of the victim's parents and how the lust for revenge results in even more violence and death.  The discovery of a convicted child-murderer living in the woods near the victim's house after being released from prison complicates things even further. (William Thomas gives a fine performance as the enigmatic Beckwith, as do most of the supporting and guest players throughout the series.)

On the home front, Bain's relationships with the women in his life provide some drama as he plans to house-share with Margaret (teaching her how to tango leads to some coyly understated romantic overtures) and tries to help an insecure Detective Sergeant Leila Hamoudi (the slightly butch-looking but gorgeous Sara McGaughey) through her first case as lead investigator without stepping on her toes.  Hannah, meanwhile, learns not to jump to conclusions after overhearing part of a heated locker room exchange between Sgt. Tom Swann (Ieuan Rhys), whom she considers a "sexist bastard", and another officer.

The show just keeps getting better with "Soundbites", in which an aspiring local policitian and popular talk radio host who advocates vigilante justice (Phil Reid) is torn when his own troubled son is accused of arson and attempted manslaughter.  This darkly moody story is beautifully directed and shot and is technically and visually the best of the lot so far, with a sinewy musical score and strong guest performances.  "Colour Blind", a twisted tale of racist skinheads vs. Pakistanis and the hit-and-run murder of a young student named Kasim, is another winner.

In "The Inner Life of Strangers", a pop star suddenly trades the spotlight for the quiet life in a remote village but is hounded by a homicidal stalker who starts offing her friends and working his way to her.  "Engineer" is another revenge tale in which a surgeon whose carelessness puts a young girl into a coma finds his own daughter kidnapped by the girl's father.  The final episode, "Blood and Water", ends the series in grand style as the brutal murder of a young woman in an alley leads to one man's agonizing conflict over whether or not to help his estranged brother beat the rap, while grappling with his own morbid obsessions and crippling guilt over a past deed. 

Sharply directed with a natural, non-melodramatic style, A MIND TO KILL eschews sensationalism, flashy camerawork and editing, and pulse-pounding music in favor of a somber, mature style that's absorbing and consistently rewarding.  As Bain, star Philip Madoc (DR. JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE, JOURNEY TO THE FAR SIDE OF THE SUN) is interesting to watch because of his restraint, refusing to imbue the character with the standard kit of theatrical eccentricities or bursts of show-stopping histrionics.  This is true of the rest of the cast as well, all of whom are consistently fine and help give the show its air of realism.  An interesting side note is that each episode was shot twice, both in English and Welsh (the Welsh title is "Yr Heliwr").

The DVD set from Acorn Media is in 16:9 widescreen with Dolby Digital stereo sound and English subtitles.  A text-based extra on disc one features three of "The Women of 'A Mind to Kill'"', with comments from Sharon Morgan, Ffion Wilkins, and Gillian Elisa (who appeared in some earlier episodes as "DS Alison Griffiths"). 

As I've mentioned before,  I liken British cop shows such as this to Detective Club mystery novels, those leisurely-paced, atmospheric tales with great characters and absorbing plots that make for a good, slow read.  If you don't have the patience or attention span for that brand of entertainment, then A MIND TO KILL: SERIES 3 will probably have you snoozing within the first five minutes.  Otherwise, settle in and enjoy this above-average collection of bleak mystery tales.

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