The Tunnel: Season 1 review

The_Tunnel_Sky_Atlantic_Logo.jpgBritish detective Karl Roebuck and his French counterpart Elise Wassermann are reluctantly thrown together to investigate a dead body found at the mid-point of the Channel Tunnel.

They are drawn into the pursuit of a killer dubbed the ‘Truth Terrorist’, who appears to be driven by highlighting social injustices. However, the killer’s real motive is altogether more personal and uncomfortably close to home.

Clemence Poesy (Elise) and Stephen Dillane (Karl) form an unlikely partnership (Image: Sky Atlantic)

Clemence Poesy (Elise) and Stephen Dillane (Karl) form an unlikely partnership (Image: Sky Atlantic)

A superior procedural thriller

A faithful remake of Danish-Swedish original The Bridge (screened by BBC4 in spring of last year), this Anglo-French co-production successfully transfers both its location – from the Øresund bridge which connects Copenhagen and Malmö to the Channel Tunnel between Folkestone and Calais – and its principal characters. The result is a tense, nuanced thriller which comprises a series of interweaving short stories held together by the central mystery around the identity of the Truth Terrorist (‘TT’), his five gruesome ‘truths’ and his ultimate plan.

The initial macabre mystery – the upper and lower halves of two women killed several months apart and placed neatly across the line dividing the British and French halves of the tunnel – serves as the launching pad for two separate threads involving social worker Stephen Beaumont and French banker’s widow Charlotte Joubert. The first of these provides the distraction of being the prime suspect through the first half of the season, while the second provides an insight into Karl Roebuck (Stephen Dillane), the importance of which only becomes apparent later on.

At the outset, Karl is an easygoing father of five, married to his third wife Laura. But as TT unveils his increasingly gruesome truths to the world via the internet and the body count continues to pile up, Karl gradually unravels. He becomes dishevelled, emotional and irritable. By the time TT turns his murderous attentions to his own family, he is almost unrecognisable from the man we first met.

By contrast his French counterpart Elise Wassermann (Clémence Poésy) is single, intensely driven and admits to finding it difficult to relate to people. Her brusque approach to others makes her seem like a liability initially, but as Karl starts to fall apart her stoicism and focus provides much-needed stability.

With Beaumont the most visible suspect until his demise in episode six, the real villain does not appear until the following instalment. Kieran Ashton (James Frain), a former police colleague of Karl’s, had lost his wife and son in a drink-driving accident involving journalist Danny Hillier, who he subsequently uses to propagate TT’s story before blowing him up in his own car. Having known about Karl’s affair with his wife, faked his own death and planned his revenge over a period of years, Ashton – in the guise of John Sumner – befriends Laura and entraps her with a home-made IED which she narrowly escapes. In the resultant confusion, he goes after his real target – Karl’s teenage son Adam – after ensnaring him by posing as his ex-girlfriend online.

Elise puts the pieces of the puzzle together just too late to save Adam but arrives just in time to prevent Ashton from enacting his final triumph of goading Karl into killing him. A struggle ensues, the gun goes off and a ricochet renders Ashton mute and blind, leaving Karl to grieve and consider his future away from the police force.

Original? No. Compelling? Definitely

The writers may have played it safe by sticking faithfully to the plot of the original (with a minor tweak at the very end) but there’s much to admire here. Dillane and Poésy put in strong performances and the relationship between Karl and Elise, which is awkward and stand-offish initially, gradually blossoms as the two learn to overcome their differences to trust and rely on each other. Thrown together unwillingly, there’s a genuine sense of camaraderie between them by the end, with Elise’s voluntary hug of Karl at the end, despite the awkwardness and discomfort it causes her, speaking volumes.

The various shorter-term plotlines fit together organically too. Characters come and go, serving their purpose to move the central story along and then departing before they outstay their welcome.

Some key story elements are neatly planted and only become transparent and significant later. Karl sleeping with Charlotte Joubert seems random and out of character at first. Only later do we discover that he has previous, having also had an affair with Ashton’s wife.

TT’s five ‘truths’ at first seem to be an expression of social politics with a wry twist on modern culture, but eventually reveal themselves to be more closely linked to Ashton’s personal history and rage. Most cruelly, his encouragement of people to vote for which of two kidnapped children should survive – a ploy which soon has hashtags trending on Twitter, to Karl’s disbelief and disgust – is a sharp observation which is a little too plausible for comfort.

And finally (this one was more obvious than the others) Ashton’s social engineering of Adam by assuming his ex’s online persona is hidden in plain sight from relatively early on. It gives him access to Karl’s state of mind and allows him to draw Adam away to his death.

Once he finally appears, James Frain oozes unhinged menace in every scene he appears in. His subtle, subdued performance is all the more chilling for it.

The series is also shot atmospherically, with heavy use of a blue-grey-green colour palette which emphasises the gritty, industrial nature of both Folkestone and Calais. Pacing is spot on too, with each episode gradually – but not too slowly – building up tension towards a dramatic climax. The two sequences of Danny Hillier trapped in his car – the opening episode’s fake bomb countdown and then the bullet-time rendition of his ultimate demise – are superbly executed. And there is a subtle injection of tempo in scene transitions as the season progresses. For instance, early episodes show languid clips of Karl or Elise aboard/disembarking the Eurotunnel trains, while later ones offer only a fleeting train’s-eye view of entering the tunnel. It’s an accumulation of small, subtle cues, beautifully done.

Overall, this was exceptional television, a tribute to the quality of drama which can be found outside the traditional English-speaking big guns of network television.

With season two of The Bridge airing in the UK in January, it will be interesting to see whether Sky and Canal+ similarly commission a second run, and whether they choose to mirror the original’s storyline. If they do, I’m on board.

Rating: 8/10

Season one of The Bridge is being repeated daily on BBC4 starting from Monday 23rd December, ahead of the debut of season two in January.

Links: What to expectEpisode 1 review

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2 Comments on The Tunnel: Season 1 review

  1. If this was meant, all along, to be about Karl and Kieran, and the entire thing is set in motion by teh double murder / single body in the Tunnel, how does the Truth Terrorist know that commission of this crime will result in Karl being “the” detective assigned to the case, without which nothing further happens and there is no TV series.

    Seems to be a plot hole you could drive a large truck through.

    If someone can explain this to me I’ll recognise this as great TV.

    • It’s never stated so this is an assumption, but I always figured that TT knew enough that he was able to commit the crime at a time when he knew Karl would be the senior officer on duty. So it’s not so much a plot hole as such, but it does require the (huge) assumption that TT was able to learn pretty much everything about Karl’s habits and was therefore able to confidenly ensure Karl would be assigned to the case. But then, given some of the other equally implausible events in the series, it’s far from the only instance where The Tunnel (or, for that matter, the original The Bridge) requires viewers to allow a significant suspension of disbelief. But what drama series doesn’t require us to trust in massive assumptions, coincidence or deus ex machina resolutions?

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