One of the criticisms often levelled at a movie flop in Spain is to refer to it as “filmed theater.” It’s kind of like saying that there may have been a good story there somewhere, but the director didn’t have what it takes to make music from the visual elements and limited themselves to merely filming, with more craft than art, one dialogue after another. However, the series’ golden age has shifted center and directors are no longer the stars of the show. It’s the screenwriter who takes center stage and right off the bat that a play is filmed theater no longer appears to be a mortal sin. Especially if it’s good theater and it’s well filmed. “Roadkill“, released by Movistar+ this November, is a prime example.
“Roadkill” is one of those political thrillers that portray the less flattering underbelly of power. Peter Laurence (Hugh Laurie) is a minister at the center of a hurricane. He has just won a defamation suit against a newspaper, but only after a witness changed her statement at the last minute. Laurence is a popular, eloquent, self-made man with a populist edge that often makes the hairs of certain members of the Conservative Party to which he belongs stand on end. Such as those of the Prime Minister (Helen McCrory), who endures him because she knows that her survival in Downing Street depends on very delicate balances: the type who doesn’t much like making a fuss. But then, everything begins to falter when a young recluse contacts the politician via an intermediary channel, to let him know she’s his daughter. Shortly after, he’s appointed Minister of Justice.
And then comes the spin. That of the protagonist’s family life, also hanging in precarious balance: a woman who takes his infidelities in her stride and two daughters who hate their parents for this arrangement of convenience. His convenience that is. The tense accord with his lover (Sidse Babett Knudsen) also cracks under the pressure as she tires of always having to play second fiddle, waiting and despairing as she fully grasps that her commitment will never be reciprocated. On top of all this, cloaks and daggers within the party soon begin to contribute to raising the temperature of the pool in which Laurence swims. And you can’t help but wonder if he’ll act like a frog, unable to realize that it is being boiled, or instead jump to safety before the roasting is complete.
The Chef du Maison here is none other than David Hare, one of the most distinguished British playwrights of his generation and a man with a wealth of experience in cinema and TV. Twice nominated as a screenwriter for his adaptations of “The Hours” and “The Reader”, on this occasion he has opted for his own story where the political slant is merely a screen on which to display the true theme of his work: frustration. The majority of the characters express one vital deficiency or another, albeit love, justice, mental health, they expected more from life.
The characters in “Roadkill” are all cut adrift, uprooted as it were. Most of the sexual relationships are of a clandestine nature and not entirely fulfilling. Young politicians eye their superiors knowing that they’ll be as much an obstacle as they can. Veterans are aware that others are waiting in the wings. In 2005, Hare adapted Chekov’s “The Seagull” for the stage, and in this four-part miniseries there is much of the atmosphere of the Russian playwright, in which the characters swarm like banshees, bored and listless. There’s political tension, yes. But they are all living dead. People who flee –in one case, literally, to the Arctic– or who cannot flee, but would like to. People trying to run away from themselves, too. A death by overdose, for example, ends up also working as a metaphor for escape.
Hugh Laurie is the super-glue that brings together all the different storylines. Without his interpretive force, the result would probably have been far too disperse. But every scene he’s in is interpreted with musical precision, with great restraint, and a far cry from the exhibitionist he played in “House” or the more recent “Avenue 5”. McCrory is an excellent prime minister, as cold as ice here and in a very different register than the passionate Polly we know from “Peaky Blinders”. And Knudsen, the famous Danish prime minister in “Borgen”, offers her most vulnerable facet here, with a memorable scene in the third episode that shows the disintegration of an adulterous relationship due to exhaustion.
“Roadkill” is unlikely to appear at any television awards ceremony. Despite its virtues, it doesn’t stand out because (I’d bet) it doesn’t want to. But what we have is four hours of very polished television. Sorry, I meant to say well filmed theater.