Michael Rooker in Henry… Karlheinz Böhm in Peeping Tom… Barry Foster in Frenzy… The list of actors who have effectively and memorably portrayed the psyche of a killer on the screen is a small one, but with The Fall another name can be added to that list; Jamie Dornan’s performance is a master class in antagonistic acting, managing to capture a terror that disturbs and horrifies, while also managing to embody enough humanity to make him believable as a family man. The Fall isn’t a whodunnit but a hedunnit, a fascinating character study that explores the mind of a killer, while also showing the police’s attempts to bring him to justice.
In charge of the investigation is Gillian Anderson’s Det. Stella Gibson, sent to Belfast to help speed up a murder inquiry that has run out of steam. As Gibson begins to find similarities between this murder and others, she becomes convinced it is the actions of one man and sets out to stop this serial killer before he strikes again. By juxtaposing the police investigation with that of the serial killer Paul Spector’s (Dornan) life, writer Allan Cubitt is able to create something fresh from a very tired format. As with Broadchurch earlier this year, many have made comparisons between The Fall and Nordic thriller The Killing and the influences are plain to see; both programs show just as much interest in the characters as they do the narrative, making for a much more intelligent and engrossing story.
The Fall premiered on BBC2 with the highest ratings the channel has received in 8 years, a statistic that really does mirror the quality of the show. Anderson’s performance is nothing short of masterful, even (dare I say it) more effective then her tantalizing role in Bleak House. What’s so good about Gibson is how she defies convention; on paper she would just appear to be another workaholic detective who’s married to the job, but the reality is far more delicate. Gibson is a woman driven to succeed in a man’s world and it is her determination that makes her so fascinating to watch; it doesn’t matter whether you personally like or dislike her, you trust her either way and Anderson’s steely reserve gives The Fall an addictive quality that’s hard to escape.
Cubitt weaves his story confidently, allowing for a slow build of tension over a number of episodes. His dialogue crackles with humanity & dry wit, allowing for lighter moments in a generally dark and brooding narrative. The story isn’t perfect, with a sub-plot involving Belfast’s criminal underworld, bent cops & hidden agendas feeling tacked on, as if the main plot didn’t produce enough material to fill each episode.
Next to those fine central performances though, the best thing about The Fall is the setting. The unforgiving darkness of Belfast’s streets provides the perfect backdrop for Paul to move about in, undetected. Moreover, it is a city balancing on a knife-edge, threating to topple over at any moment. It creates an air of unwavering danger for our protagonist and adds to Cubitt’s unrelenting tension.
It all comes back to Dornan though, whose performance continues to haunt you after the credits have gone up. He’s a unique talent and, judging by the show’s success and recommission, here to stay.