CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews last night’s TV: John Le Carré meets Gone Girl as silky Kate Beckinsale dives into the heart of Africa in ITV’s The Widow
Jungle cries and the clicking of insects filled the air as a beady-eyed chameleon shuffled through the rainforest.
We’re conditioned on Sunday nights to relax at the sight of exotic creatures, primed for the soothing tones of David Attenborough.
What we got were two child soldiers with AK-47 assault rifles, climbing trees for mischief before going to school . . . and taking the class hostage. Whatever it may be, The Widow (ITV) is not your typical wildlife documentary.
The whole drama is hard to categorise — an international thriller, starring a Hollywood A-lister, filled with twisted domestic secrets.
Kate Beckinsale stars in new ITV drama The Widow as a bereaved wife of an aid worker in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
The backdrop of civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is straight out of Frederick Forsyth via John le Carré, but the plot is pure feminine psychodrama, like Gone Girl or The Girl On The Train.
This makes sense when you realise the eight-part series is created by brothers Jack and Harry Williams, easily the most innovative and adventurous writers in British telly today.
Their dark crime drama Baptiste ended last month and, if you’re missing that, The Widow is filled with parallels — especially in the soundtrack by Dominik Scherrer, whose distinctive music for both shows features echoing notes on the piano, hammered out in groups of four.
The story is very different. Kate Beckinsale is the bereaved wife of an aid worker who believes she has glimpsed her husband Will in news footage of a riot in Congo’s capital Kinshasa — three years after he supposedly died in a plane crash.
She dashes to the turbulent heart of Africa but can’t trust anyone . . . not her husband’s aid agency boss (Alex Kingston), not the slippery TV executive (Charles Dance) and certainly not the South African mercenary known as Mr Tequila (Bart Fouche).
As yet I’m not convinced by Beckinsale. Like another movie star, Richard Gere in MotherFatherSon, she looks too smooth, too permatanned and pampered to be believable as the dogged investigator plunging into Africa’s slums.
Liberal snob of the night
Historian David Olusoga’s self-righteous judgments on folk in Newcastle 200 years ago made A House Through Time (BBC2) all but unwatchable.
He seemed unable to understand that values were different then. Toe-curling.
But the supporting cast make it easy to overlook that.
Fans of the superb Trapped, which also ended last month on BBC4, will be as delighted as I was to recognise Icelandic giant Olafur Darri Olafsson — no longer a tormented detective, now a survivor of the crash that killed (or didn’t kill) Will.
He’s befriended by Beatrix, a role taken by Sherlock star Louise Brealey, whose pace and timing are so good that she can fill you with presentiments of danger simply by answering a question a little too quickly.
They played two scenes together, both mesmerisingly tense.
The Widow was pitched against the Beeb’s highly trumpeted courtroom drama The Victim (BBC1), on at 9pm for the next three nights. This, too, is a switchback story, crafted to confuse us with false leads.
Kelly Macdonald plays a mother half insane with grief, who incites vigilantes to beat up the man she suspects of killing her son 15 years ago.
Kelly Macdonald stars alongside James Harkness (left) and John Hannah (right) in BBC’s The Victim
Our sympathies are meant to be torn between Craig, the bus driver who police say is innocent, but who hides a guilty past, and the mum consumed by the fear that her son’s sadistic murderer will strike again.
So far, the set-up feels strained, not least because John Hannah’s detective shows no interest in finding the thug who tried to cut Craig’s throat with a scythe while dressed as Death (there’s symbolism for you).
It wasn’t gripping. At one point, my attention wandered so far that I found myself thinking how much actor Ramon Tikaram (playing a solicitor) looks like the singer from Roxy Music. What’s his name? Virginia Plain!