'The Victim': TV Review

A taut, twisty thriller.

Kelly Macdonald and James Harkness star in a four-episode series set in Scotland that explores crime, loss and grief.

One of the best tight-and-bright — OK, bleak-and-dark — dramas of the fading year creeps in today as BritBox unveils its original series The Victim.

Set in Scotland and starring Kelly Macdonald (Boardwalk Empire) in a fascinating, shaded performance, this is exceptional work from writer and creator Rob Williams (Killing Eve, The Man in the High Castle), who takes an old murder and turns grief into a destructive force, showcasing a strong cast, an engaging setting and more twists than the early going would suggest.

In fact, the start of The Victim seems ordinary enough, as director Niall MacCormick flies over gray Edinburgh and down into a courthouse, where Anna Dean (Macdonald) appears to be waiting, along with her family, for a trial to begin and Craig Myers (James Harkness, Darkest Hour) is anxiously waiting to be called into the proceedings.

Within moments The Victim takes the first of several important time shifts backward. The flashback is set six months earlier, on Halloween night, as Craig takes his 6-year-old daughter trick-or-treating while his wife, Rebecca (Karla Crome, Carnival Row), stays home and Craig's best friend, Tom (John Scougall), goes with. Anna, on the other hand, refuses to let her son go trick-or-treating with friends, expressing an overprotective streak that her husband and eldest daughter think is too much.

Craig, now back home, answers the door to one last candy seeker and is brutally attacked with a knife and a blunt object.

Williams uses some keen deception. In a mere four episodes he unfolds an exceptionally taut, economical thriller, expertly teasing out facts and letting viewers believe one thing only to upend their assumptions. The action is wrapped in a smart sense of relationships between husbands and wives, friends, lovers and co-workers — with an outer narrative layer involving public perception via the press and social media.

The court scene that opens The Victim is actually a trial for Anna, who is accused of posting Craig's address and photo online, accusing him of murdering her firstborn son years ago and now living under an assumed name in the same town (the killer was a troubled teen who served time and then was given a new identity). This is what led to the Halloween vigilantism that turns out to be just one of many moving parts in the drama.

Macdonald gives an affectingly intricate performance as Anna, focused and together on the outside but clearly consumed by grief all these years later. Over the course of the limited series, Anna, a nurse, undercuts everything the audience first thinks of her. She's unwavering in her belief that her son's killer needs to be revealed, shamed and scared out of town, and the audience realizes that beneath her cool visage, with her neat, pulled-back hair and crisp dresses, a potentially unhinged person seeks revenge.

It's a credit to Macdonald that she keeps a cap on that emotion, never rising beyond a reasonable anger or verbal ferocity, letting her facial expressions work a kind of nuanced magic. Before the halfway point of the series, it's hard to tell how to feel about her — precisely the kind of uncertainty that Williams wants, and which permeates the drama. Harkness matches Macdonald's impressive performance, leaving audiences to wonder if Craig is an innocent victim or the killer Anna claims he is. 

So much springs from seemingly nothing in The Victim. Crome, always solid, fleshes out a complicated role as Craig's wife, at first standing by him but also wondering what the truth might be, and then having to consider her maternal responsibility when the small town's violence toward Craig puts her daughter in jeopardy. There are a lot of victims here, which is the larger point.

Veteran character actor John Hannah (Four Weddings and a FuneralThe Mummy) plays a detective who's trying to clear Craig and prove that Anna is being given too much latitude as the long-grieving mother, but his B-storyline needed more episodes to flesh it out. Another excellent actor, Pooky Quesnel, manages to get fuller, more satisfying treatment as a private investigator who has been working for Anna.

The most important element of The Victim is how quickly it finds the open wounds (for any number of characters) and delves into emotional territory when the plot threatens to become too twisty. Although he might ultimately get more credit for elaborate plotting, Williams is able to make deep connections about loss. Never is this more evident than at the series' harrowing end (Macdonald and Harkness never flinching), even as a few bravura plot switchbacks still manage to surprise.

The Victim sneaks up like that. What looks like an ordinary mystery has a truly impressive depth and level of intellectual agility to it. If you haven't yet found BritBox — a streaming service from the BBC and ITV — this might be the perfect opportunity.

Cast: Kelly Macdonald, James Harkness, Karla Crome, John Hannah, Pooky Quesnel, Jamie Sives, Isis Hainsworth, John Scougall, Ramon Tikaram, Chloe Pirrie
Creator-writer: Rob Williams
Director: Niall MacCormick
Available now on BritBox