'National Treasure': TV Review
Hulu imports a British thriller about sexual abuse and digs beneath celebrity headlines in the process.
Jack Thorne, one of England's better writers of fiction (The Last Panthers, This Is England, the stage play of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), has penned a taut new series that has its roots in a tawdry nonfiction incident that, as it crosses the pond from Channel 4 to Hulu, will conjure different images in American minds than it did in British ones.
That's because National Treasure (and yes, it's unfortunate that everyone thinks about the Nicolas Cage movies first) is about an extremely famous television actor and personality who, in the twilight of his career, is accused of rape, with multiple women coming forward and instances of overt philandering spilling out into the press. While we may instantly think of Bill Cosby, the British series recalls the scandals of BBC TV host Jimmy Savile who, after his death, was outed as a sexual predator of both children and adults for a lengthy time in that country — a beloved celebrity who managed to fend off most of the early allegations while still alive since so many chose not to believe it could be true.
Of course, Savile and Cosby were both, in their times, considered "national treasures" before allegations exploded and rewrote history. With National Treasure, Thorne, a prolific dramatist, seizes on the chance to create a fictional story around Paul Finchley (the wonderful Robbie Coltrane), an aging comic and actor who lately has been hosting a popular game show. A large man, he's walking around with the help of a cane and, when we meet him, he seems quite the faded lion, moodily presenting a lifetime achievement award to his comedy partner Karl (Tim McInnerny); subsisting on the longtime generosity and patience of his wife, Marie (Julie Walters); and periodically helping out with the children of his troubled grown-up daughter Dee (Andrea Riseborough), whose mental fragility has relegated her to part-time custody.
As the long-ago rape allegation surfaces, disrupting what we think is Paul's relatively sleepy late-stage existence, his life begins to unravel. All of his secrets come out, and it's a credit to Thorne that in this brisk story (four episodes) there are still fresh and surprising discoveries of morally dubious decisions along the way.
What works best on National Treasure is how Thorne explores the interrelated stories of forgiveness, reluctance to cause a stir, repressed memories and celebrity obsession. It's there in Paul's marriage to Marie, who allowed him to be unfaithful under the debatable assumption that it didn't mean anything so long as he loved her most and told her when he went astray. It's there in Paul's relationship to Karl, who looked the other way for a friend. And it's there in Dee's struggle with depression and tendency to self-sabotage.
Indeed, as Paul's reputation and legacy come undone and we discover more horrible things about him, Thorne wants us to wonder how far he went: Could he really have raped a young girl all those years ago? Is Dee's condition related to something her father did? Are his sexual interests deviant enough to suggest a crime, or just salacious enough to smear a man for what he prefers in private?
While the trajectory, once it gets moving, certainly doesn't leave much room for doubt, just having a little bit there helps the drama (as does the fact that National Treasure gets to the point pretty quickly). But there's also much to be said about the nuanced acting throughout, whether it's Coltrane's skillful shifting of moods and manners, keeping you guessing as to whether he's just a lout or a real predator; Walters' depiction of Marie's battle with the deals she's made with herself to keep the marriage going; Riseborough's crafty interpretation of a damaged life; or McInnerny's balance between best friend and second-best man. Director Mark Munden's penchant for intimate, unflinching close-ups and disorienting use of color and blurriness add to the haze of it all.
And all the while studying the impact on this family, Thorne is able to reset what it looks like from the outside, where celebrity buys the benefit of the doubt even after the fact, and women's motivations (and memories) are scrutinized when reporting sexual offenses.
There's an obvious familiarity to the subject matter, but with National Treasure, Thorne never makes it seem rote, boring or insignificant.
Cast: Robbie Coltrane, Julie Walters, Andrea Riseborough, Tim McInnerny
Directed by: Mark Munden
Created and written by: Jack Thorne
Premieres: Wednesday (Hulu)