Monday, August 11, 2014

On Netflix: English 'Southcliffe' is Grueling Account of a Massacre

Sean Harris portrays Stephen Morton, a man who goes on a shooting rampage in "Southcliffe".        Channel 4
Southcliffe (England, 2013, miniseries/drama. English, color, four episodes.) In a world where every place seems like a target for tragedy, the English miniseries "Southcliffe" takes a look at its effects on a small market town.

Recently picked up by Netflix - who erroneously calls it a Netflix Original - for streaming, "Southcliffe" delves into long accounts of a small town's ways of coping with the deaths of 15 people and the wounding of 20 more after a man goes on a random shooting spree in the small Kent town. Clocking in at just over three hours with four episodes, this miniseries focuses on the pain and heartbreak of loss, and not the act of violence itself.

At the center of the story is Stephen Morton, a man who takes care of his mum and likes to go on long runs while wearing a lot of Army gear. He meets Chris Cooper, a soldier home from Afghanistan, with whom he eventually takes on a mission practice that plays more like a deadly cat-and-mouse game in the woods. When it's learned Stephen's not a former SAS soldier as was believed, Chris and his uncle beat him in the woods.

The next morning, the rampage begins.

In the aftermath we met native son and international journalist David Whitehead (Rory Kinnear) who covers the shooting, a social worker named Claire (Shirley Henderson), and pub owner Paul Gould (Anton Yusef), all of whom lost someone or something in Stephen's reign of terror in the small town.


At episodes that run just over 45 minutes each, each chapter focuses on a new central character, and all in a non-linear structure. Characters that were dead in one episode, are alive in the next, then dead again. It seems to work in a way. As the character's emotions are all jumbled and volatile, so is the story we're presented with. We flashback and flashforward on these wounded characters and their loved ones as if we're trying to remember them and forget at the same time.

The most enticing storyline involves Claire, who appears to be centrally connected to all of the major players. She was the social worker for Stephen's mom, her daughter was killed by Stephen in the shooting, and her husband, Andrew (the impeccable Eddie Marsan), knew Stephen and David when they were growing up.  Claire and Andrew have their own ways of coping, but their love for each other in their personal affairs is touching and undeniable. Henderson is spot on as Claire who is so sad and endearing that you feel for her. Watching her in a state of sober private mourning is so painful to watch, but she acts exactly as a parent may at times in that circumstance.

While I loved getting to know the characters, the series slowly fell apart for me, not picking up on interesting subplots but making up and following others. In episode three, it's assumed that Stephen has not been killed like we thought, and an anonymous letter to David in episode four, presumably from Stephen, leads nowhere. In the same episode, Claire goes on an unnecessary ploy to find a woman trapped in a sex ring that used to know her daughter. The final episode introduced more unexplained theories than necessary, but every character seemed to find peace in the end.

A smash in England, "Southcliffe" was nominated for four BAFTA awards, with Sean Harris winning lead actor for the only two episodes he was in, and Henderson and Kinnear earning supporting gongs. The series itself was also nominated but loss. The acting is of high caliber in this work, but the series loses its focus near the end and substitutes loss for vengeance. On the whole, "Southcliffe" is gripping, painful, and, at times, a slow meditation on what brings a community together, or apart, in the aftermath of a tragedy. "Southcliffe" combines "Elephant's" unexplained violence crossed with "The Sweet Hereafter's" heartbroken look at recovery. The series lingers long after that final episode.

Rating: B-

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