There are some actors who have the ability to make everything they do seem effortless. Somehow they manage to make their characters seem like a natural extension of themselves. Whether on screen or on stage they bring a grace and elegance to everything they do that is marvel to behold. As a result their performances are of a quality most actors only dream of achieving. While any role he’s ever played would serve as an example, watching Michael Gambon as Inspector Jules Maigret in the four DVD set Maigret, Complete Collection from Acorn Media, is a wonderful opportunity to see this in action.
Inspector Jules Maigret was the creation of the Belgian born author Georges Simenon. Setting him loose upon the streets Paris France, Simenon used Maigret to serve as our guide to the dark side of life in the City of Lights. The strip clubs and seedy hotels of Montmartre, the Left Bank, the very proper bourgeoisie and even the world of French politics are all backdrops for the cases Maigret tackles. His occasional sojourns into the countryside outside of Paris reveal that Simenon understood greed, jealousy, fear and mistrust can grow as easily amongst farmland as it does cobblestones and concrete.
While Simenon wrote his Maigret books in the years between WW l and WW ll, this television adaptation seems to be set in post WW ll France. With Budapest Hungary standing in for Paris (Former communist countries haven’t had time to replace their old architecture with modern buildings and its easier to find locations which look like mid 20th century Europe there than anywhere else) we are immersed in a world of somewhat battered elegance. Old and new clash with the middle classes and above doing their best to hold off changes being foisted upon them by those who want what they consider their fair share. It’s a world drug addicts, prostitutes and strippers move through as easily as bankers, business men and aristocrats with the latter doing their best to ignore the former’s existence.
Maigret, while leading a stolid middle class life with his devoted wife, is equally comfortable moving through the corridors of power as he is strip clubs and seedy bars. In fact one has the feeling he is sometimes more comfortable in the company of those he’s supposed to be investigating than those he reports to. At the very least he is definitely far more sympathetic to honest criminals and prostitutes than he is to hypocritical members of the middle class and his political masters who are more concerned with appearances than truth.
A wonderful example of this is seen in the first episode of the series in which Maigret is in the middle of a long term investigation involving a series of jewel store robberies that have been plaguing Paris for years. He is convinced he knows who is behind the crimes, but he has been unable to collect the proof he needs to put the man behind bars. You’d think he’d have a slightly antagonistic relationship with his suspect, yet the two men treat each other with the utmost respect and courtesy. When his long time opponent is found shot to death in his apartment, Maigret treats the case like its an investigation into the murder of a friend.
The cases are a diverse mix of circumstances and locations, and while the majority of them revolve around murder, there is also some political intrigue and corruption included which make for a nice change of pace. What’s refreshing about the series is no matter what the crime, the writers have ensured we realize how much of a police investigation is drudge work. Clues are discovered from careful examinations of files, researching a person’s history and going door to door to try and talk with potential witnesses. Maigret and his team of three detectives work long hours on a case sifting through evidence and piecing together the facts. This doesn’t mean there’s no action. Far from it in fact as the boring stuff takes place off camera and we only see them acting on the information they’ve uncovered.
Still, there’s very little of the type of action North American audiences are used to in their police shows. The joy in this show is watching Maigret’s interaction with the various characters he interviews and comes in contact with over the course of his investigation. Watching Gambon come to a slow boil and struggling not to let it show when Maigret is dealing with a particularly odious political boss or allowing his incredulousness at someone’s obvious fabrication to show through the arching of one eyebrow is more fun than any car chase or gun battle you’ll ever see.
One of the other treats of this series are some of the other actors who show up in various episodes. Most memorably is the episode where Maigret is investigating the death of a young night club stripper. Not only is the stripper played by Minnie Driver but the same episode features a young morphine addict played by the wonderful Michael Sheen and the stripper’s boss is played by Brenda Blethyn. The series originally aired in 1992 and 1993 so it was before any of the three had achieved the level of notoriety they enjoy today, but one can see in each of their performances why they have gone on to be so successful.
However this is still Gambon’s show and no matter who is playing opposite him he remains the centre of our attention. The amazing thing about his performance is he doesn’t even have to be doing anything to command our attention. Yet, even when he’s sitting behind his desk he’s undoubtedly Maigret. From the way he tamps down his pipe to the how he lifts an eyebrow in quizzical interrogation when hearing something mildly perplexing, he is his character. He’s not the type of actor who has to resort to gestures or raising his voice to display emotions. Even on those occasions when he is demonstrative, raising his voice in anger or banging a table in frustration it’s never too much or appears to be anything other than the most natural thing in the world for him to be doing. Gambon as Maigret is one of those tour de force performances which come around far too infrequently and are a privilege to watch.
While Maigret, Complete Collection does not have any of the bonus features most of us have come to expect from DVD sets, it does come with an 8 page booklet which contains a biography of author Georges Simenon, a history of the books the series is based on and information about other film and television adaptations of the Maigret books. However the twelve episodes contained on the four DVDs in this box set already contain one of the best bonuses you could ask for. The performance of Michael Gambon as Inspector Jules Maigret. Be prepared to be amazed and astounded by some of the finest acting for television you’ll ever see.