Tuesday, January 2, 2001

John Doyle

Dead ahead: murders and mysteries

Indulge me here for a minute with a little reminiscence. A few years ago I was visiting my parents and, in the usual way, I went to the pub for a drink with my father. We talked about God, soccer and one thing and another, and then we went home. My mother was watching TV, and my father asked what was on. The title was Murder at the Mardi Gras or something equally mundane. At the word "murder," my father and I got out of our coats and sat down to watch, instantly engaged. My mother was very amused.

There is tremendous satisfaction in watching a good murder mystery on TV, but it's a genre that's in disarray right now. There are very few straightforward cop shows with a murder committed and a criminal to be caught. Everywhere you look there are lawyers, anthropologists, forensics experts and people in lab coats doing the jobs of cops. Fortunately here in Canada, we've currently got one of the finest crime shows on TV, one that defies the dictates of the genre and transcends them.

Da Vinci's Inquest (CBC, 9 p.m.) has sensibly been moved to Tuesday, starting tonight. This means that it doesn't clash with The West Wing, a show watched by people who claim they never watch TV. Da Vinci's Inquest is well worth the attention of any snob who distrusts television drama. The show gets better and better, with loosely connected story lines, textured characters and a lyricism that never loses emotional contact with the viewer.

In the show's intricate layering, Dominic Da Vinci (Nicholas Campbell) has the role of moral avenger — the coroner pushing to expose hypocrisy, and nail corrupt characters who think, because they're not dealing with cops, they can get away with weak excuses and obfuscation. Then there are the cops themselves. The main duo, Mick and Leo, played by Ian Tracey and Donnelly Rhodes, are a great pair, often curiously disengaged from their work. They're professionals, wary of moral subtleties.

Tonight's episode starts with a charred body found in a burning car. That's a case for the cops. Then Da Vinci is called to examine a dead body in a trunk being shipped to Vancouver. Slowly and methodically he tries to figure out who is trading in human cargo.

There's a wonderful bit of business when the cops enter the home of the guy whose body was in the burning car. Leo looks around in despair.

"I just wish that for once, if somebody's going to kill somebody, they would do it in one spot. Not just a little bit at this end of town and then a little bit at the other end of town. You know what I mean? Make up your mind!" He might as well be saying, "These kids today!"

The Wandering Soul Murders (CTV, 9 p.m.) is a very different sort of murder mystery. The third TV movie based on the Gail Bowen novels and starring Wendy Crewson as ex-cop and cop's widow Joanne Kilbourn, it's clearly aimed at women viewers. Here, Kilbourn's daughter finds the body of a murdered young woman, and the cops instantly claim the case is part of "the little-flowers murders," in which young prostitutes are killed.

Right from the start there's an obvious didacticism. There's a bit of tension about the young woman Kilbourn's son is dating, a brunette with an air of erotic mania. Then, after the body is found, Kilbourn is immediately sensitive to sexist attitudes on the police force. Inspector Milard (Victor Garber) berates a loutish cop who sneers at the dead young woman and then sneers at Kilbourn's sensitivity. "She used to do your job, only better. Much better."

This drama is better than the previous adaptations of Bowen's novels. Crewson is starting to make something of the main role, and the sideline plotting is laced with an anxiety about the fatal charms of a predatory young woman. Still, one wants it to be much less bland. Sure, there's a murder and a mystery to be solved, but the movie feels enervated. It's a prim, innocuous variant on the mystery genre.

The American (Wednesday, 9 p.m., PBS on Masterpiece Theatre's American Collection) is fabulous television. The second in the series of PBS dramas based on American literature, it's a U.S./Irish/British production and better than Cora Unashamed, the first, too-earnest show in the series. It pares down Henry James's novel to its bones and it's emphatically visual where James is talky.

Matthew Modine plays Christopher Newman, the rich, American innocent who strides into the midst of an old French family and fails to understand much of anything except his intense attraction to the daughter. She is Claire de Cintre (Aisling O'Sullivan), a widow, and the moment when Newman first sees her on the street, her face covered in a black lace mantilla, is exquisite. Newman pursues her, utterly blind to the social chasm he's crossing. Only the family's servant (Brenda Fricker) gives him any indication of the sophisticated evil he's meeting.

Diana Rigg is ferociously good as de Cintre's mother, an ogress who uses etiquette like a stiletto. Newman, the big-boned, pear-shaped American with an open face, is no match for her. The drama captures James's essential message about the hopeless innocence of Americans when faced with the ancient, cultivated wiliness of Europe. But it also emphasizes the erotic allure of Europe for Americans. Even when Newman and de Cintre are exchanging pleasantries, there's an erotic charge in every glance and gesture. This is a gorgeous gothic drama, with opening scenes that are exquisite and chilling. There's even a murder.

Watch it and savour it.

Dates and times may vary across the country. Please check local listings.

John Doyle's column runs every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.

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Created: January 11, 2001
Last modified: January 21, 2001
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