'Accused' - Alex's Review

I'm not the biggest fan of Jimmy McGovern. I respect him for raising the questions, tackling the problematics most gladly avoid. For his docudramas. I don't fancy though his blunt approach and square storytelling were the narrative rules over the characters (see especially: 'The Street').

Therefore I take Christopher Eccleston's praises with a pinch of salt. And it actually helps not to over-react when indeed the miracle doesn't happen. It's good TV, but it's nowhere near genius level. The polemics Jimmy McGovern and Christopher Eccleston engage in regarding 'Accused' and the first episode of the series, 'Willy's Story', are peculiarly misleading. Imagine if you analysed 'Hamlet' and you emphasised that the main points of the play are the deficiencies of monarchy and weather in Scandinavia.

So the main problem is actually not with the episode, but with namely the pre-formed expectations. And the normal reaction is to seek explanations and, indeed, discover faults and failings. 'Is this truly realistic?', 'Is this plausible?' Quite unfortunate in the case of this 'Accused' story. And aren't those so called faults and problems a tad (as in, pink-elephant-level) obvious?

Speaking of the narrative, it might be 'truthful' in its form, the technical side. What it says, however, is far more than just a pre-fab message - because the truth is a closed system that can't survive inversion or conscious/subconscious misinterpretation. This is not pseudo-documentary social realism. This is sandbox realism of McGovern. It does not take a slice of reality and present it as a generalised example, but instead concentrates reality and out of that constructs events and characters. This construction in most blatant form can for example manifest as plot ruling over everything else. When it's more elaborate, it becomes proper engaging television where you follow the characters.

And that 'Willy's Story' certainly is. On the first viewing, I felt like I was held up by my shirtfront for the entire hour and I can only wish more dramas managed the same. It took me some rewatching to actually get the episode though, and the process I went through was exactly that of casting away the proposed framing and forgetting all the context, and simply looking at it as a self-contained film. Film that is absolutely valid and not just pontification.

Which brings us to said problems. Probably it's for the best that not everyone can say 'yes, it does happen' out of their experience. But those who can, will never see 'Willy's Story' as sci-fi. There comes indeed a period in a man's life where one feels as if one lives in a western, where - while positive outcome is of course still theoretically possible - one is extra-capable of making decisions that in the end perfectly derail one's - and the family's - life. And I challenge you to find a person who hasn't experienced a "So have you been to Thailand"-moment! Add pet peeves, pride - of a man, a worker, a breadwinner, a father. That's Willy Houlihan for you. And that's why I find him interesting, not ugly, as a person (just like David Stephens and Major West, so I'm not exactly overstraining here).

The priest scene - it is staged to suggest something supernatural, but any dedicated priest with a long career is a good psychologist. There is of course a certain 'magical' atmosphere, as if reality was suspended - there's for example a notable change in how Willy talks too. The priest can probably be seen as a 'projection of Willy's doubts' - if the framing is put aside. It leaves the discovery of the money which is one thing I'm uncertain about - but mostly because it's as if emulating a certain film by Danny Boyle, especially the stylised cut-aways to the baddies. So, while even weirder things happen in everyday life, I suppose I wish there was another way Willy could have come across the loot. Story progresses through a step-system of decisions, and it could have allowed a more proactive event without losing the subtlety or the gradual build-up (that are essential to prepare the stage for the twist that comes later).

Overall, apart from a slight dip towards the middle of the episode, it's very well paced. While it could do with some breathing space, the important thing is the stability of how the story is unrolled. The authors suggest that the driving force is that you don't know which crime it was that put Willy in the dock (he even drops the cigarette outside the casino: McGovern illustrating the point Willy made earlier, that's dark humour for you). What added extra weight and poignancy to the film for me, was how by learning more about Willy, I started to understand better and better what it means for him to be in that situation, being the accused. And the end was perfect.

While there might be some issues with the story, it's a great portrayal of the character by Christopher Eccleston. In my eyes, his second best film of the last five years. And namely this performance and my willingness to allow the film its quirks that makes it work. The middle-class approach is, ironically, the one that benefits this wannabe-gritty drama.

P.S.: Having watched the whole series, I must add: 'Willy's Story' was the only one where the sentence felt native in the story universe. In the rest of the episodes, the justice or injustice took the form of a tacked-on extra point, sometimes quite ridiculous. Structure-, dialogues- and dimensions-wise, Eccleston's episode was also one of the, if not simply, the, strongest.



chiclit said...

Great review. I am definitely subject to my American experience of police procedurals and court room dramas. Upon reflection, have gotten past that with Accused, it is a very bold and different approach to take for a series. I wonder what the overall theme of the whole arc of episodes will be when its all completed? It was tightly crafted entertainment-in my mind it could have even been a bit longer.

Once I got past some of the story issues, or rather rationalized them in my mind- I was able to focus on the characterization and dilemmas.

Willy was obviously a man of impulse-his past gambling etc. He had been able to keep his head above water, even while having an affair, and now his impulses plus fate were causing him to fall fast. Its easy to see in that context why paying for the wedding of his daughter was so important, it was what he thought he should be doing to maintain the facade of normalacy, being a good family man etc right up until the end. I am seriously not sure what he would have actually done had he had to leave the wedding and go pick up his girlfriend-would he have really gone through with it? Or impulsively chosen to stay at the reception?

Eccleston did a great job with the material,there was some lovely subtle work-as well as the in your face acting. He comfortably inhabited a workingman's character, as well as someone living a double life-and it was telegraphed through his line readings. All in all solid entertainment, worth investing some time in.

I would have loved a flash forward, to see how Willy and his family ended up after 6 years.

Alex said...

Thanks, Chiclit.

As the arrest was technically the trigger for the volte-face regarding Willy's feelings, I'd say he would have carried on with his plan - until something else happened.

[ETA: Indeed, wasn't what happened in the episode just an analogous 'bloodsucking bat situation'?]

So far the eps from guilt/redeeming pov have been classical tragedies.

[ETA: And there hasn't been another episode yet where the lead actor was _trusted_ as much as CE - and where the writer(s) had the balls to really stick to the concept]