One of the problems with the legal system, whether in the U.S. or in the U.K. is that the system always errs on the side of the doubt. A finding of “guilty” in a murder case must pass the legal benchmark of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” and a very good attorney can implant those seeds of doubt skillfully and sometimes to the effect of letting a murderer off the hook. In PBS’s new Masterpiece Mystery, the two-part “The Escape Artist,” that is exactly what happens–to tragic effect. It is a thought-provoking dissertation on the meaning of Justice (with a big “J”), while at the same time presents a beautifully written personal drama, emotional and at times downright frightening.
David Tennant (Doctor Who, and the forthcoming FOX series Gracepoint) stars as Will Burton, a brilliant, undefeated barrister, just named number on a list the “Top 40 Under 40” for the profession. Appropriately called “Escape Artist” for his ability to successfully defend the obviously guilty, he is now tasked with defending anti-social recluse Liam Foyle (Toby Kebbell), whose fascination with birds wins him the award for creepiest bird lover.
Like a surgeon, Burton pokes holes in the Crown’s prosecution, forcing the judge to eventually declare mistrial. But when Will finds it too distasteful to shake Foyle’s hand in victory, a chain of tragic events is set in motion that spirals ever more out of control.
To say more of the plot would give it away, but the story is as much a cautionary tale about legal ambition and winning at all costs as it is a legal/crime thriller. Tennant is perfectly cast as the barrister who has it all: a smart, beautiful wife, a darling young boy, a large flat and country cottage. Professionally, he has never lost a case, and is headed right for a “silk,” to become a QC (Queen’s Counsel)–one of the profession’s elite in the U.K.
Played by Sophie Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda), Will’s opposing counsel in the murder case is number two on the “40 under 40 list,” and she, too, is ambitious and smart–and equally adept at turning an opposing witness, and win–even when she might think her client is guilty. And she, too, has her part to play in the thrilling, edge-of-your seat courtroom and crime drama, which originally ran in the U.K. on the BBC.
The acting is top notch, with Tennant putting in a perfect performance as Will Burton. Every note is riveting, from when we meet Will, at the top of his game, and as we accompany him, all along his journey as his character unravels bit by bit . Okonedo is always wonderful to watch. She exudes intelligence and grace, but also possesses great charm and humanity which shine through her character’s ambition.
As Foyle, Tony Kebbell is supremely creepy. It is unnerving to watch him at every step, observing the wheels turn in his head through his eyes and body language.
“The Escape Artist” premieres Sunday, June 15, 9:00 p.m. ET on PBS. Part 2 airs June 22. In the meantime, enjoy a preview: