Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Last Enemy: Hulu brings more BBC stateside

Sometime last year, I found the BBC's The Last Enemy on Hulu (it's freely available on Youtube now, too), in the "Masterpiece Contemporary" section of that site. I was on a big kick of Benedict Cumberbatch, being so impressed by his work in the Beeb's great Sherlock (and, later, his performance in Third Star). I also knew of Max Beesley from the UK's excellent Survivors series. tLE had a fine cast and a nice premise, so watching this mini-series' 5-hour running time seemed like an easy choice to make.

I was somewhat wrong.

Set in "the near future," tLE follows a genius mathematician, Stephen Ezard (Cumberbatch) as he ends a long absence from the UK in order to attend his brother's funeral. Various things he hears there rouse his interest. More importantly, he finally learns that his sibling, Michael, was married. Yasim, the widowed woman, seems surrounded by danger, and the story of his bro's death rings more and more falsely, so Stephen jumps head-long into the mystery of this death in the family. And he does it while slowly falling for his sister-in-law.

The Last Enemy is shot beautifully. Its central mysteries are too reminiscent of The Constant Gardener, but they're still gripping. My lack of love for this miniseries bears no ill-will to the overall storyline, nor its technical crew. And I appreciate that it actually delves into a modern-day concern: the growing ability of governments to monitor society via access to CC-TV and other forms of technology.

It's great to see a bit of popular entertainment that wants to deal with real-life politics and controversy. This topic is especially important, 1984-esque stuff - the fact that policing a population becomes easier when you have video cameras everywhere, when the authorities can access the cameras bought by private businesses in order to constantly watch its citizens. In this situation, what happens to the power that people are supposed to wield over their government? What happens when abusive politicians rise to power in this environment?

Mind you, this sort of thing is an even bigger concern in the UK, where vast swaths of the public can be observed through cameras in London and its surrounding areas. On the positive side, when a schoolboy in London goes missing, they can find him quickly. On the negative side of affairs, it not only undermines privacy in general, this could turn out very badly if the government is run by tyrannical-types.

So with all this praise, what's the problem? Basically, it's three-fold. For one, huge sections of this story start to resemble Casablanca in a laughable way. I don't mean to spoil anything, but similar beats eventually arise, and they do not work very well. It seems... odd to add elements of noir to tLE's ongoing tale, considering that its nightmare of totalitarian control has a mystery that repeatedly bounces the audience from the UK to Asia and back again.

Moreover, the story handles Stephen weirdly. He has some signs of OCD and other issues, but he can leap from man of action to cunning to naive dolt quite quickly. It's even more surprising to have Stephen falling head-over-heels for his widowed sister-in-law. While it's true that he never knew her as his brother's wife, I can't honestly tell if this aspect was added to increase the noir factor of the narrative, or if the romance was tacked-on because stories "need" some passion; regardless, it rings hollow, at least somewhat, as Stephen is a fairly cold customer.

The biggest problem, however, is in Stephen's brother himself. You shouldn't read the next two paragraphs if you don't want spoilers, so just follow the all-caps warnings and skip to the end...


Okay, so long before we learn that Stephen's brother is alive, a great many people talk about the man. Each and every person talks about Michael Ezard as if he were the second coming of Jesus. Seriously, folks talk about "the light in his eyes" or what a great humanitarian he was... It's kind of touching, but when you find out the truth about Mike, it makes those people sound completely dumb and insane.

While I do think that Max Beesley is a good actor, and while I do believe that a great many people have their friends and neighbors completely fooled, I simply cannot buy the Mother Theresa meets Mister Rodgers descriptions of those other folks. Not only is Max a brutal thug in Survivors, but when he does appear in tLE, he essentially acts like the king of his cell block from the get go.

Max Beesley explains his surprisingly-deep, yet harsh, role.


Yes, I was disappointed by the way that The Last Enemy ended. I felt that the affair between Stephen and his s-i-l is foolish and mis-played. However, I could have ignored the noir-meets-1984-meets-Constant-Gardener mashup if the "saintly" figure we heard so much about doesn't come off as absolutely vicious. Seriously, Michael Ezard is a man who does not know how to put kindness into his expression, much less seeming like the Second Coming to so many people.

In terms of suspension of disbelief, this show overcomes its own strengths by going too far in ignoring basic elements of the characters that inhabit its story. It might seem like a petty nit-pick, especially in a far-reaching and twisty narrative (the location shooting is gorgeous), but I think that you would have noticed the same things if you had watched tLE, too - all 5 & 1/2 hours of it...

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