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State of Play (BBC Miniseries) Review

Spiking in popularity on the eve of the release of the American remake of this British miniseries, State of Play is likely one of the best, if not the best miniseries I’ve seen in the last decade. This journalistic potboiler is staggeringly well acted, and the low-key production and unobtrusive direction combine to make for one of the most compelling storylines I’ve seen in recent years. It’s difficult to justify my gushing, considering I went into the series largely because I saw that it starred James McAvoy, whose work I enjoyed in Wanted and Starter for Ten. I sat through the first episode fairly unimpressed, admiring the workman-like ethic of the production. However, midway through the second episode, I was hooked.

It’s difficult to say what makes State of Play such a potent combustion, equal parts journalistic thriller and relationship drama. The show makes a point of approaching its storyline without manipulating the viewer’s emotions. There’s hardly any use of music and the camera is often stationary. The cinematography is likewise appealing but very clean, without any regard to stylistic choices. Instead, director David Yates lets writer Paul Abbot’s brilliant work speak for itself. Dialogue is sharp and driven, exchanges sparking with a good amount of wit. The cast of State of Play is more than up to the task, bringing a humanity and emotional appeal to a story that would otherwise flounder on the basis of its many serpentine facts.

State of Play begins as many thrillers do: with a seemingly insignificant murder. The victim in this case is a young black teenager; but what confounds the mystery further is the unrelated death of one Sonia Baker, research assistant to politician Stephen Collins (a resolute David Morrissey). As Collins walks out of a press conference nearly in tears, the newspapers descend on the story, which strongly suggests an affair between Collins, a married man, and Baker. Assigned to cover the story is Cal McCaffrey (John Simm, who bears a surprising resemblance to fellow Brit Simon Pegg).

What quickly complicates matters is Cal’s relationship to Stephen, since Cal acted as Stephen’s campaign manager while the struggling politician was fighting his way into Parliament. Now, faced with the prospect of betraying an old friend, Cal uncovers that the two deaths may be connected, and from that point on State of Play does not let up. With his reporter team consisting of an emotive Kelly MacDonald and a wiry James MacAvoy, and under the watchful eye of editor Cameron Foster (Bill Nighy, wonderfully acerbic and gifted with some of the funniest lines in the series), Cal delves deep into what soon develops into a conspiracy that may envelop not only Collins, but anyone who dares to become involved.

The less said about the plot, the better. Suffice to say State of Play owes a certain debt to American political thrillers of the 1970s, mainly All The President’s Men and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. Most of the action goes down in wiretapped rooms, offices or the newsroom. David Yates nevertheless manages to inject local flavor into the proceedings, but not so much as to isolate non-British viewers. The show is very easy to follow but requires that you pay attention, which is an easy feat considering just how effective it is at portraying the tension of its quickly developing story. Yet Paul Abbot’s writing hardly feels rushed, developing character and story with an astute ear for dialogue, as director David Yates brings a toned-down professionalism and excels in smooth transitions and great multi-character composition.

The DVD set is split up into two discs, each with three episodes. The transfer is quite impressive for a show shot on HD, with hardly any grain in the nighttime scenes and general clarity that only helps one to marvel at the more artistic shots. One note to viewers is to keep subtitles on, since the various accents can be difficult to decipher from time to time, MacDonald’s strong Scottish accent immediately coming to mind.

DVD Bonus Features

Unfortunately, the extras are limited to a number of trailers and two commentaries by the director, writer, and editor Mark Day for episodes one and six. The commentaries offer some insight into the production but give it plenty of space to speak for itself.

"State of Play (BBC Miniseries)" is on sale February 26, 2008 and is rated NR. Crime-Thriller, Drama, Thriller. Directed by David Yates. Written by Paul Abbott. Starring Bill Nighy, David Morrissey, John Simm.

Apr
30
2009
Mark Zhuravsky • Staff Writer

I'm a prolific blogger, writer and editor who loves film.

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