Hugo Blick’s atmospheric noir thriller starring Christopher Eccleston, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Stephen Rea, aired in 2011 on BBC Two and was one of the TV standouts of the year. Rated as the second best programme of 2011 in Radio Times, this artsy conspiratorial tale is refreshingly avant-garde.
The chief protagonism of The Shadow Line is split between two focal characters: DI Jonah Gabriel (Ejiofor) and Joseph Bede (Eccleston). Their respective efforts to walk the figurative line of morality is the principal theme of the series; confronting the ethical equivocality of their actions (e.g. Bede’s conscientiously motivated drug trafficking, and Gabriel’s amnesic proprietary of drug funds), as well as battling against the forces caballing to unseat them.
Both actors’ performances are sublimely nuanced, and befittingly artistic for a series such as this. The pair of them wring every last ounce of dramatic worth from the scenes afforded to them.
Stephen Rea, meanwhile, spearheads the antagonism as Gatehouse, the ‘controller’ who ensures all the entwining pieces fall into their correct places; predicting others’ moves like chess pieces on a board, all the while looming in the shadows, out of play.
Rea imbues Gatehouse with an unnervingly phlegmatic demeanour, and assured predominance (also, at times exuding a deceptive avuncularity, lulling those he communes with into a false sense of security). Many elements of his character derive from the Moriarty ethos; a brutally efficient thinker. And Rea embodies them as if he was born to do so.
Assisting him on the villain-front is Jay Wratten (Rafe Spall), nephew of Gatehouse’s previous cohort, Harvey Wratten, whose demise opens the series and paves the way for all the events to come. Jay is more complex than he first appears (and indeed continues to appear, right up until the final few episodes); the loose-cannon persona a mere facade akin to Gatehouse’s. Spall is fine as Wratten, but doesn’t quite measure up to the rest of the cast around him. At times, the theatricality of his villainy goes overboard, and his “psychotic” behaviours often come across thoroughly unconvincing.
I don’t want to spoil any crucial plot details too much for those who might read this and decide to give The Shadow Line a chance, but suffice to say, it’s an exhilarating succession of genus twists and turns, as the knots of deceit and secrecy unravel at Gabriel’s feet, and the conspiracy he’s entangled himself in comes full circle.
For advocates of television being primarily an artistic medium, there is no better showcase of this than The Shadow Line. Blick’s strong metaphorical allusions to right and wrong (i.e. the shadow and the line) — with both visual and vocal means used to convey these throughout the seven episodes (his shots always consist of a potent use of shadows) — and the sheer elegance of the dialogue; it’s almost Shakespearean in design. I can’t recommend it enough.