'Deadwater Fell': TV Review

The mystery doesn't always work, but the small-town stuff is intriguing.
4/6/2020

David Tennant and Cush Jumbo star in Acorn's new four-part mystery about a horrible crime in a small Scottish town.

In these uncertain times, viewers are looking beyond the usual suspects to find new programming in their favorite TV genres. Of course, if you're a devotee of brooding crime dramas from across the pond, chances are good that Acorn is already on your radar.

If you're still on the fence about the Brit-friendly streaming platform, perhaps a twisty mystery featuring David Tennant and Cush Jumbo  — speaking with their native accents — will make a convert of you.

The four-episode Deadwater Fell from creator Daisy Coulam (Grantchester) isn't really an overhaul of its particular genre, but thanks to entertaining performances and a perspective that steers viewers away from the obvious, it's a reasonably satisfyingly fast whodunnit.

Deadwater Fell is set in a charming Scottish village, the sort of place where the whole populace gathers in the square to cheer on participants in an annual bike race through the country. In this community, the Kendricks are beloved. Tom (Tennant) is a local doctor, Kate (Anna Madeley) is a school teacher and with three perfect kids and a gated estate, they seem like they've got it all. When tragedy strikes and Tom is the only survivor, though, it upends all of the town's expectations, causing particular unrest for the Kendricks' best friends Steve (Matthew McNulty), a police sergeant, and Jess (Jumbo), Kate's closest confidante and fellow teacher.

This is going to shock you, but the Kendricks may not have been the perfect, happy family they presented themselves as, and Tom may not be the paragon of bearded, sweater-ed virtue people thought they knew. Miller situates these personal shadows around quaint rural architecture, verdant Scottish hills and valleys and, in one key scene, a lovely day trip to the sea.

The trappings of Deadwater Fell sound like elements that dismissive viewers would classify as reminiscent of a "Lifetime Movie," leaving aside that a wide variety of themes and plots have been squished in under that umbrella. Coulam and series director Lynsey Miller are aware that "Doomed Wife," "Secret-Keeping Doctor" and "Pathos From Dead Children" are genre standards and there are times — the best times — when Deadwater Fell feels like a commentary on which stories the genre normally tends to focus on and whose voices it normally finds important. It's here that it needs to be noted how the pejorative "Lifetime Movie" label ignores how many Lifetime originals are written and directed by women, and how reductive the inevitable "women in peril" designations are.

Tennant is the easy hook to lure viewers in and he's getting at least a small kick out of playing this seemingly admirable town pillar, who happens to have these cold, dead eyes. The story is told with just enough misdirection that you can have fun watching Tennant tease out the big "Killer or just a huge a-hole?" conundrum around Tom. If you don't always understand the psychological makeup of the character, that's because Coulam wants to use Tennant and Tom as lures, but not as the center of the narrative. This is not Broadchurch.

The series is more about how a community responds to both tragedy and mystery and the way a nightmare like the one depicted in the first episode can force ripples into the everyday mysteries and tragedies that people experience. That could also be Broadchurch, mind you, and Broadchurch is probably the best-case example of the way the genre can give equal measure to a crime and the world shaken by it. Deadwater Fell leans more on the latter.

So, "Is Tom a killer?" might be the main plot, but "What's happening with Jess and Steve's fertility treatments?" and "Why is Steve, who seems very smart and capable, satisfied being a small-town cop?" and "Should we be concerned that Steve's ex-wife is dating a much, much younger man?" are all questions of near-equal merit. I'd say that movies in this genre tend to define the main crisis as the only thing of interest happening in whatever sleepy burg they take place in, and Coulam almost seems to be using the Kendrick situation as a setup to explore how a town copes and moves on (while keeping viewers in at least some suspense).

By the halfway point, Jumbo is safely entrenched as the story's real hero, which makes this a big week for the British star of The Good Fight. She and McNulty, a semi-familiar face if you watch enough British TV, have solid chemistry to match the interesting-but-flawed relationship between Jess and Steve. As Tom's mother Carol, Maureen Beattie gets more screen time than the genre normally allows. The series makes sure that Madeley's Kate is a much more regular presence than the events of the premiere would suggest, and intentionally makes her moral ambiguity a much more open question than Tom's chillier alternation between black and white. Miller does a very good job weaving Kate-centric flashbacks, often with a superficially more positive tone, into the extremely dark material of the investigation.

With that dark material, Deadwater Fell is far from escapist viewing, and even if the series doesn't treat the demise of several children in ultra-graphic terms, it can be hard to watch. I also wouldn't have minded one or two more unpredictable beats at the end, which is a bit too rushed and predictable. Deadwater Fell still offers sufficient distraction and enough nuance to make it worth checking out.

Cast: David Tennant, Cush Jumbo, Anna Madeley, Matthew McNulty, Maureen Beattie
Creator: Daisy Coulam
Available now on Acorn