The Last Enemy

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Airdate: 9 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 5 (KCET)

The first of a five-part conspiracy thriller on PBS' "Masterpiece Contemporary" series, scheduled for successive Sunday evenings, kicks off with a breathlessly cut and paced 90-minute episode. From the word go, the central conspiracy is framed in an international context, injected with a deadly virus, and populated with a cast of techno-geeks for whom love and death are like the remorseless on-off states of computer chips.

Making it even more delicious for fans of such borderline sci-fi is the setting, a world in the not-too-distant future where an unruly mixture of government and private surveillance -- using a combination of mostly familiar and occasionally futuristic technology (highlighted by some cool 3-D Internet surfing) -- is on the verge of creating a superdatabase that gives the government unlimited access to personal data. The most substantial difference between then and now is the openness with which the government carries out its surveillance. As one character says ironically, "The only right we've lost is the right to disappear."

It might have turned into an entirely conventional game of cat and mouse, but writer Peter Berry keeps the focus unswervingly on a brilliant mathematician (Benedict Cumberbatch) who stumbles on the database after returning from four years studying killer bees in China. For Cumberbatch, it's the nightmare many of us already feel trapped in.

While most of the other cast members are relegated to relatively one-dimensional roles, Cumberbatch gets the job of connecting them all with a complex characterization that has him careening charismatically from clueless innocent to resourceful man of action in the manner of Jason Bourne.

The surrounding cast busies itself primarily with creating ambiguity sizzling with tension, led by Anamaria Marinca as a refreshingly unconventional hero, Robert Carlyle as a tall, dark and handsome rogue and Eva Birthistle as blond bombshell of a control agent.

Everything about the production is first-class. The frenetic speed with which the story unfolds at first seems incoherent but soon settles into a hypnotic rhythm of action, reflection and periodically igniting personal chemistry.

Magnus Fiennes' ingenious score mixes minimalism, tick-tocks (sometimes set in time with typing on computer keyboards), lyrical serialism and even a snatch of Mozart's "Requiem" accompanied by a particularly nasty electronic organ.

Production: BOX TV and WGBH and the BBC
Executive producers: Justin Thomson-Glover, Patrick Irwin, Adrian Bate and Rebecca Eaton;
Producer: Gub Neal; Director: Iain B. MacDonald;
Writer: Peter Berry;
Director of photography: Nigel Willoughby;
Editor: Steve Singleton;
Composer: Magnus Fiennes;
Production designer: John Stevenson;
Casting: Gail Stevens and Will Davies.
Cast: Stephen Ezard: Benedict Cumberbatch; Yasim Anwar: Anamaria Marinca; Michael Ezard: Max Beesley; David Russell: Robert Carlyle; Eleanor Brooke: Eva Birthistle; Barbara Turney: Geraldine James; Patrick Nye: David Harewood; George Gibbon: Christopher Fulford; Nadir: Alina Ioana Serban.

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