'The Last Post': TV Review

An excellent ensemble poignantly humanizes the last months of British rule over Yemen.

Amazon's South Arabian desert-set British import finds vintage glamor and taut drama in colonial repression.

In 1965, South Arabia was whatever it was believed to be. Sure, there were a few incontrovertible facts: Located in present-day Yemen, it boasted the third busiest port in the world, as well as important oil refineries and loll-ready beaches. But everything else was in contention. To the British empire, it was hailed as "a perfect example of colonial rule." To members of the military stationed there, the port city of Aden — so far from Eden — was a dangerous but controllable outpost. To the soldiers' wives, it was a lonely, scorpion-infested cage. To American eyes — at least those of an intrepid reporter — it was very obviously a war zone. To the local populace, it was home — and they wanted it back.

Two years later, South Arabia would declare independence from the British empire. Save for a terrorist/freedom fighter named Kadir Hakim (Aymen Hamdouchi), no one in The Last Post, an Amazon series originally broadcast on BBC One, can envision such an imminent redrawing of the map. Centered on the varying struggles of three military officers and their wives, the six-part debut season would benefit from a greater context of the region's distinct history. But perhaps the immediacy of the drama's concerns reflects the myopia of the primary characters. Most of them don't seem to realize the ground underneath their feet has already shifted. A shocking pair of kidnappings reorients them soon enough. 

Despite taking place on the other side of the globe and shot in spiffy sand and cool turquoise locales reminiscent of vintage postcards, The Last Post strongly recalls Mad Men's early years. The men are men, and the women are slowly suffocating in glamorous gowns. Pickling in gin and boredom is Alison (the exceptional Jessica Raine), an Elizabeth Taylor lookalike cheating on her husband Ed (Stephen Campbell Moore) with his supervising officer (Joseph Kennedy), but still legitimately aggrieved that the former was passed over for a promotion.

Alison takes under her wing the just arrived Honor (Jessie Buckley), a naive newlywed accompanying the delicate-looking but surprisingly stern Joe (Jeremy Neumark Jones). A distillation of the social stratification and emotional repression that has the base in an unforgiving grip, high-ranking Joe forbids his lonely young bride from becoming friends with the wife of a soldier of lower rank (i.e., nearly all the women around). That insistence on propriety, of course, doesn't stop him from nursing a fixation on a female journalist determined to expose British oppression in the region (The Babadook's Essie Davis, seemingly trying out each and every accent between Texas and Georgia in her portrayal of a brassy American broad).

It's difficult to tell apart the military personnel in the pilot, and it isn't until the end of the third hour that a larger narrative arc emerges. But the first half of the season (the portion screened for critics) is taut, brisk, moving and gorgeous. (The first trio of installments are directed by Jonny Campbell; the second by Miranda Bowen.)

Creator-writer Peter Moffatt (Undercover, The Village) demonstrates a keen interest in the tiny fissures that, in their totality, threaten the future of British control of the Gulf of Aden. The myth of the white man's burden crumbles a little bit with each day, while insurgents lay traps for the soldiers, husbands and wives snipe at one another and petty tyrannies take their toll. The situations are familiar, but the series grounds them in remarkable intimacy and individual tragedies. Even the overused scenario of a child becoming disillusioned about Santa Claus is told with an invigoratingly adult pathos. (Parents Harry and Mary, played by Ben Miles and Amanda Drew, round out the cast.)

The costuming is pure nostalgia, but there's little fondness for lost empires (or bloodily gotten gains). The tense gunfights and ambushes beyond the base are sympathetic to the characters we've gotten to know, but suffusing the series is a recognition that the locals rightly want back control of their land and its resources. The South Arabian rebels don't really get their due; they're canny but barely developed. It's fair to say The Last Post isn't very interested in them, as it's absorbed in studying from a distance how the many teetering hierarchies within the colonial and military system are tested, and presumably collapsed, by a revolution on the ground.

Until a shocking calamity brings the base together, it's reasonable to want to spend the most time with the pregnant and messy-drunk Alison as she sloshes about the pool, waiting for the day when the rules will start making sense again.

Cast: Jessie Buckley, Stephen Campbell Moore, Amanda Drew, Ben Miles, Jeremy Neumark Jones, Jessica Raine
Creator: Peter Moffatt
Premieres: Friday (Amazon)