I’m sure many have noticed how some actors seem better suited to one type of role than another. It’s like they are only capable of handling a certain range of emotions, or playing a certain type of person with any credibility. However there are some actors whose talents are such that not only are they perfectly capable of handling any role offered them, the characters they play come to life on screen or stage. Mainly this is due to their ability to render them as multidimensional and multifaceted human beings. Somehow they are able to not only enact what is required to tell the story being presented, they are able to tell the character’s story simultaneously.
As we go through our daily lives each of us carries around an involved personal history which impacts our decision making process. Even though it very rarely bubbles through to the surface, the actor who is able to bring that sense of personal history to their portrayals, is far more convincing in his or her performance than another. Whether an audience is aware of them doing it or not, they recognize something in the character that helps them identify with him or her. Instead of being merely a one dimensional figure, they are fully developed characters who are far more believable than most of the ones normally seen on screens.
After watching the box set of Murphy’s Law, The Complete Collection, being released by Acorn Media on August 31 2011, what sticks out the most is the quality of the acting of everybody appearing in the series, and especially James Nesbitt’s performance in the lead role of undercover police officer Thomas Murphy. Over the course of the series’ five seasons, we watch as Murphy’s job evolves from being undercover as an observer in an effort to find answers to a crime (In the first episode of Series Two he pretends to be a homeless man in an effort to find the person who killed a fellow officer) to acting the role of a hardened criminal in order to gather evidence against various crime figures. As this involves winning the criminals trust, there are times when he has to play fast and loose with the laws himself and observe things that sicken him without reacting.
While he lays on the stereotype of the comical Irishman, always ready with a joke and a laugh, to cover over his reactions to the things he observes, there are times when the veneer cracks. Sometimes it’s nothing more than him having to stare into a mirror to make sure his mask in place, other times it’s a certain deadness in his eyes and, when he’s off duty, he’ll go on drunken binges in order to dull his pain. By the time the fifth season comes around he’s barely able to hold it together. Two fellow undercover officers, he had been their contact on the “outside – their cover officer, go missing on the job. The guilt and anxiety he feels over their disappearance manifests itself in anger and frustration at his fellow officers, the amount he drives himself to find them and the depth of his emotional reactions as he uncovers some of the secrets behind their vanishing.
While Nesbitt is wonderful, the rest of the actors are equally talented. While episodes during the first two seasons each presented a complete investigation, which didn’t allow for much character development among the criminals, the final three seasons were each made up of multi-part episodes dealing with a single case. In each we become as close to the criminals as Murphy does. While there are those who you’re not going to spare any sympathy for, Series Five in particular deals with smuggling people in from Eastern Europe and trafficking young women as prostitutes, there are also times when even when we don’t like the person in question we learn enough about them to understand how they ended up being the people they became.
Series Four in particular is wonderful for this as we are introduced to two brothers. Both former Loyalists – Protestant Irish who had carried out terror attacks against Catholics – Drew, (Liam Cunningham, and Billy Johnstone, Brian McCardle, have left Belfast Ireland and moved to England upon being released from jail. As they had both been violent criminals into drugs, robbery and assault before they were jailed, when violence starts to erupt in the housing estate they now live in they are immediately suspected. However, the elder brother Drew claims to have converted to Muslim in jail and renounced the ways of violence and crime.
Ironically, while initially the police don’t believe in Drew’s conversion, it turns out to be genuine. It also turns out to be one of the reason behind the recent crime spree as his younger brother Billy longs for the days when it was him and Drew against the world. He gets it into his head if he can drive a wedge between Drew and those people who have “taken his brother away” everything will go back to the way that it was. It’s only when we learn that Billy’s mom, dad and sister had all died when he was ten we begin to understand the level of his panic at losing the only world he’d ever known. What he does might be reprehensible, but he ends up being so pathetic we almost feel sorry for him. The real victim of the series is Drew, who was genuine in his desire to turn his life around. We see him struggling with his demons and look to be winning the battle, but history and circumstances tear his dreams apart.
Of course, in order for there to be such good characters, the writing and direction of the series have to be excellent. While British television excels at this sort of thing, Murphy’s Law sets a new high-water mark in crime dramas. While the episodes are always intense right from the start, over the course of the five series they become progressively darker and more involved both in plot and character development.
The more we learn about the lives led by undercover police, men and women, the more it makes us wonder why anybody would take on the job. For months on end they have to live completely isolated from their families, not able to trust anybody. Never able to let their guards down they must always stay in character and occasionally run the risk of, as one officer puts it, “going native”, or crossing the line from doing what’s necessary to get the job done to becoming who they’re pretending to be.
While we don’t learn the exact reasons why others do this kind of work, what we know about Murphy’s past offers some insight into what could motivate an officer to take it on. His daughter had been killed by the IRA when they kidnapped her in an attempt to make him bomb his own police station. He loses himself in the danger of the work and the different people he portrays in order to run away from his feelings about what happened. Unfortunately, he doesn’t count on the fact there are many opportunities for emotional upheaval, which only increase the amount of pain he feels. The work also prevents him from functioning in the “real world” as he’s become so used to hiding behind masks he no longer knows how to deal with real individuals. This is depicted beautifully in Series Four where, when he’s not dealing with the Johnstone brothers, he’s trying to help his father cope with his mother’s Alzheimer’s disease. It’s heartbreaking to watch him attempt to offer comfort to his dad, hesitantly reaching out his hand to touch his shoulder as if he’s not sure that’s what he’s supposed to do.
While the nine-DVD set of Murphy’s Law, The Complete Collection might not contain much in the way of special features – a written out biography of James Nesbitt and his notes on Series Four – the episodes are so brilliant that it is sufficient reason in itself to own the set. The writing, the direction and acting are of a calibre that has to be seen to be fully appreciated. Even the musical score, especially Edmund Butt’s for series 1 through 4, are amazing. Instead of overwhelming the action with melodramatic music that only points out the obvious, it compliments everything that happens on screen. So subtle you barely notice it, the music is like an extra actor who somehow adds atmosphere and colour to each episode. It all adds up to, with Nesbitt’s performance leading the way, to being not only one of the finest police dramas ever made, one of the best pieces of television I’ve ever seen, period.