The principal problem with The Shadow Line is its identity crisis. At times, it’s a fascinating noir-ish thriller; at others, it feels like an unwieldy Shakespearian melodrama that has somehow lost its way en route to the RSC and found itself on the telly instead. The characters declaim lengthy speeches rather than simply talk, and when they do actually speak to each other, the dialogue is extravagant to the point of pretentious. It works on occasion – Stephen Rea pitches it perfectly as mysterious manipulator Gatehouse, keeping it on the same, chillingly calm level at all times – but sometimes, it simply sounds ludicrous.
Distressingly disturbed drug trafficker Jay Wratton (Rafe Spall) is the worst offender, alternating between apparently guileless cockney-geezer-isms and roaring sadism in rapid succession as he searches for missing driver and murder witness Andy Dixon (Toby Bakare). Jay’s violence is compelling to watch – his submerging of a cat in a barrel of water is only topped in unpleasantness by the scene where he caresses the stomach of Dixon’s pregnant girlfriend – but when he speaks, a genuinely chilling psychopath becomes an ineffective pantomime villain.
If there was a scale of criminality with Jay at one end, Joseph Bede (Christopher Eccleston) would be at the other. Utterly opposed to violence (‘It’s not Stanley knives that keep people loyal’), he talks about the mechanics of buying and selling drugs in the manner of an Open University lecturer discussing a particularly dull mathematical algorithm. Bede is well versed in illegality, it’s clear, but he seems too nice and depressingly ordinary to be so deeply involved in a life of crime. There’s an unstinting decency to Eccleston that made him great as the lead character in Doctor Who and The Second Coming, but renders him unbelievable here. You simply can’t imagine how his character ever came to be involved in a business so bereft of morality.
On the side of law and order, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Jonas Gabriel – who seems to have a red light constantly shining through the window of his car as if it’s some kind of mobile brothel – is frequently overcome with a similar theatricality to that which affects Wratton, veering from whispering to shouting within seconds. His assistant Lia Honey (Kierston Wareing) spends a lot of time swearing and acting rather like Ace from 1980s Doctor Who would if she’d grown up to be a policewoman – most effectively when a garage boss asks her, patronisingly, ‘Should you be doing this on your own – pretty girl like you?’ Her venomous response is: ‘I think I can handle it – fat fuck like you.’
There are some moments of consciously arty genius here – there’s a wide shot of Andy Dixon, stood alone in front of a single dead tree surrounded by lush greenery, which is as evocative as a Constable landscape, while the music by Martin Phipps is wonderfully melancholic, sounding like a mixture of Albinoni’s ‘Adagio in G Minor’ and David ‘Jeans On’ Dundas’s atmospheric score for Withnail And I. Meanwhile, an action-packed chase through the London streets and the Underground is a welcome relief after forty five minutes’ worth of overblown dialogue. But as pleasing as these elements are, and as compelling a story as The Shadow Line clearly is, the programme still needs to do a lot more and say a lot less to become something genuinely memorable.
Airs at 9pm on Thursday 12th May 2011 on BBC Two.