Secret State, the four-part British miniseries airing on DirecTV this December, was inspired by a novel by Chris Mullin. That novel’s title, A Very British Coup, would make for a more appropriate name than the generic, direct-to-video-thriller banner under which the series flies. Sure, the adaptation takes great liberties with its source material, but there are enough political machinations at hand to warrant the threat of a government takeover—and the tone is very British indeed. Aside from the presence of a noted Irishman in the series’ leading role, Secret State is as English as can be, with lots of men and women in proper clothing walking with purpose, having pints down at the pub, and debating the fate of the nation through low, reasonable tones in which only the occasional “Oh God” gives any indication of emotion whatsoever. There’s drama and betrayal and death, but all of it is filtered through a steely gray reserve that rarely, despite the score’s urgency, builds to a climax. Perhaps Secret State isn’t such a bad title after all, when so much of what happens is conducted in a whisper.
There are advantages to this approach, but the series’ biggest weakness is that its core mysteries don’t offer anything new. A corporation whose greed and carelessness costs more than a dozen civilian lives, and whose response to the tragedy is to obfuscate as much as possible? Not a surprise. A government whose politicians’ incestuous connections to corporate money make them reluctant to seek out true justice? Seen it. A surveillance state in which even the conversations of the highest senior officials are routinely monitored without their knowledge or consent? Oh, do go on. The premise—an explosion at a chemical company kills 19 people, and Deputy Prime Minister Tom Dawkins (Byrne) is determined to see that justice is done—is a familiar one, but it’s distinguished in a way by the muted, careful approach. There are dark conspiracies at work, but those conspiracies are populated by stubborn individuals, and the threats Dawkins faces from these often foolish adversaries never feel larger than life—even when they involve multinational corporations.
That commitment to being low-key also has drawbacks, the main one being that Secret State rarely ever gets out of first gear. The early scenes of Dawkins exploring the ruins of a devastated town, or visiting the pathologist and seeing a child-sized body bag laid out on a steel gurney, are affecting, but the outrage never rises above an intellectual inevitability. People are dead, and thus one should feel bad, even though the people are entirely symbolic. Dawkins’ rise to power, and the backstabbing and infighting that surrounds him, is moderately entertaining, and Byrne’s reliable ability to suggest pensiveness as a mask for deep-seated passion remains intact. But Dawkins’ stoicism—which makes him appear initially as an unimaginative workhouse that won’t go around rocking boats—makes it difficult to connect with the character in the early going. The lack of a strong hook compounds the difficulty.
Secret State picks up some steam as it goes along, and the relentlessly melancholy tone occasionally shows signs of life. A distant relationship between a bugged ex-military man and the woman tasked with monitoring him has a gratifyingly emotional pay-off, and Byrne warms to his role as Dawkins slowly shifts from uncertain elder statesman to fire-breathing populist. The cast is solid to a man, as it’s hard to go wrong with reliable performers like Rupert Graves, Gina McKee, Ruth Negga, Douglas Hodge, and Charles Dance as The Guy Who Frowns Slightly And Worries Everyone. But the series never comes into its own. The critique of a government operating at the beck and call of private interests unquestionably has a place in art, but the detachment that sets Secret State apart has the unfortunate effect of making any satirical edge a matter of intellectual curiosity rather than gut-wrenching fury. The plot continually threatens to expose dark truths about the nature of society and its masters, but those truths, while fundamentally upsetting, fail to leave a mark. It’s a modest tale whose teller can’t quite work up the energy to raise his voice.
Directed by: Ed Fraiman
Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Charles Dance, Douglas Hodge
Airs: Tuesday, December 3, at 10 p.m. Eastern on DirecTV