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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

CASE HISTORIES -- DVD review by porfle

Who knew Jason Isaacs (A CURE FOR WELLNESS) could be cool?  I've seen him play tight-assed military officers, mild-mannered brainiacs, and the like (can't speak for his "Harry Potter" character since I haven't delved into that series yet), but never anything like private investigator Jackson Brodie.  Then again, the protagonist of the Scottish TV series CASE HISTORIES (2011) isn't your average private investigator.

We first see Brodie acting as a "bedroom dick" a la Jack Nicholson in CHINATOWN, so we know he's not above snapping pics of cheating spouses on the sly to bolster his coffers.  What really drives him, however, is his compulsion to help people, for which his occupation gives him the perfect outlet.  His specialty is missing persons, and, as shown by a frequent flashback of him as a child, searching in vain for his murdered sister, he knows how it feels to lose someone.

Isaacs' Brodie is as cool as they come, but not in the usual hardbitten action-guy way.  (The word "soft-boiled" pops up in one episode.)  The scripts are based on the novels by Kate Atkinson, who describes Brodie as a male version of herself, so he displays a touchy-feely quality you'd never see in the likes of Mike Hammer.  Caring and sympathetic to a fault, Brodie likes to get really involved with his clients, even having affairs with some of them--the ones that he can stand, anyway--which means that the barrier between his personal and professional lives is often nonexistent.

Not to say he isn't tough, though.  When the situation calls for it, this ex-soldier, ex-cop (despised by many of his former peers on the force for being too honest) can handle an attacker with swift brute force.  Sometimes he even has to do this during visitations with his young daughter, Marlee (Millie Innes), which delights her--their scenes together are funny and endearing--but horrifies his ex-wife Josie (Kirsty Mitchell), who's planning to whisk their little girl off to New Zealand with her.  Brodie's growing anguish over this, along with the lingering sadness of his failed marriage, is a major theme that adds even more emotional depth to his character.

The six episodes of CASE HISTORIES are divided into three two-part adaptations of the Atkinson novels "Case Histories", "One Good Turn", and "When Will There Be Good News?"  The first one focuses on cold cases, beginning with the false hope that his sister's unknown killer has finally been found.  Another girl who disappeared thirty years earlier is sought by her three eccentric sisters, one of whom has romantic designs on Brodie, in a melancholy tale that's both quirky and dotted with black humor. 

Meanwhile, Phil Davis (the cabbie in the "A Study in Pink" episode of the BBC's recent "Sherlock") is a devastated father who can't rest until he knows why his daughter was murdered.  Yet another missing person case that suddenly falls into Brodie's lap becomes linked with this one in a way that strains credulity to the breaking point.  Still, I find that all of these subplots are not only well-juggled, but blend together almost seamlessly regardless of the coincidences we're sometimes asked to accept.  Even plot holes don't really bother me if I'm being entertained, and sometimes a little improbability can be fun.

"One Good Turn" thrusts Brodie into a mystery involving Russian prostitutes (one of whom he finds floating near the beach during his daily run), a middle-aged wife who's just a little too happy about her husband's disabling heart attack, and a road rage incident that saddles Brodie with a nervous mystery writer who thinks a hit man is after him.  Once again, these elements all become intertwined in interesting ways and the sudden bursts of violence Brodie has to deal with, including a baseball bat-wielding killer, add some excitement to the usual drama and pathos.

"When Will There Be Good News?" starts off with a bang as Brodie tries to rescue a woman whose car has overturned on a railroad track and gets hit by a train.  As the title suggests, nothing seems to go right for him in this one--in addition to being badly injured, Brodie's daughter is in New Zealand and a killer has stolen his identity, which lands him in jail.  But there is good news when a vivacious young nanny named Reggie (Gwyneth Keyworth) enters his life and asks for help searching for her kidnapped employer and her baby.  With the lovable Reggie giving him much-needed emotional support, Brodie tackles the case and reveals a surprising secret behind a long-ago attack which left the missing mother the sole survivor of her family.

Amanda Abbington plays Brodie's ex-partner DC Louise Munroe, whose love-hate relationship with him is a major asset to the series.  Despite Brodie's tendency to annoy her to distraction, Munroe appreciates his abilities and often grudgingly relies on his help while their true feelings for each other remain forcibly submerged.  Zawe Ashton co-stars as Deborah, the traditional sassy secretary who runs the traditional hole-in-the-wall office and keeps him on his toes.   

One thing you won't see on CASE HISTORIES is a lot of shaky-cam, fancy editing tricks, and other stuff designed to give the impression that things are faster and more exciting than they really are.  Breakneck pace and pulse-pounding excitement aren't Brodie's style or the show's--"leisurely" and "contemplative" would be more apt descriptions for both.  The subtle, low-key storytelling is greatly enhanced by beautiful locations in and around Edinburgh, Scotland.

The two-disc DVD from Acorn Media is in 16:9 widescreen with Dolby Digital sound and English subtitles.  A 15-minute behind-the-scenes featurette (including interviews with Isaacs and author Kate Atkinson) is the sole extra. 

Offbeat and unpredictable, with moments of wry humor and riveting drama, CASE HISTORIES wears its heart on its sleeve even when the main character is forced to beat the hell out of a bad guy.  For a refreshing change of pace, Jason Isaacs' kinder, gentler private eye is just the man for the job.

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