This review was originally published a few years ago but BBC America is only just now getting around to airing the series. Everything in this review stands and you should watch the hell out of this starting tonight at 10 p.m.
This weekend, State of Play opens nationwide. Because the Hollywood complex no longer knows how to create original content, it should come as no surprise that this movie ain’t original. Rather, it’s a two-hour trimming and retelling of a six-hour 2003 British series of the same name. About a year ago, I bought the DVDs for the show based upon good reviews and word of mouth, and a fantastic cast (John Simm, David Morrissey, Kelly Macdonald, Bill Nighy, Polly Walker and James McAvoy, among others). Since that time, the DVDs took up seemingly permanent residence on the front left corner of my entertainment stand. Last weekend, I decided to finally displace the DVDs of their home (failure to pay any fucking rent, cheap-ass discs!), and spent a mostly hungover Sunday watching six hours of British political intrigue.
And it was a six-hour laze well spent. The one-liner is that the series is a slick political thriller involving some journalists digging into two seemingly unrelated deaths which may have some connection to Parliament (the Big Ben Britishy one, not the Funkadelic one). With six hours to burn, the series obviously breaks things out rather slowly. The first episode, for example, devotes a substantial amount of time just to showing us some of the major character relationships. The primary relationship living in the dark underbelly of the whole series is between Cal McCaffrey (Simm), a journalist for The Herald, and Stephen Collins (Morrissey), a Member of Parliament. Former friends and co-workers (Cal worked on Stephen’s campaign) who have fallen a bit out of touch, the two wind up reuniting and the viewer winds up being quickly mired in the complications that arise from a friendship between a politician and a newsie. Their relationship goes through some complicated ups and down as the series progresses, and while the show is about a lot of things well and beyond the relationship between these two, it really is the central emotional thread that holds everything together.
Thankfully, Simm and Morrissey are both well up to the challenge presented by their characters. While both Cal and Stephen start the series off as rather likeable chaps (particularly Cal), much like their shared relationship, each character has his own up and down, leaving you with a some different thoughts of the guys six (viewer) hours later. While Morrissey was the only one of the two who got a BAFTA nomination that year, I actually think Simm gives the (slightly) more impressive and nuanced performance, if only because he is given a little less to work with. The part of an empassioned politician who is both grieving and dealing with familial issues and a possible political conspiracy is much more to chew on than the role of a journalist digging into those things. Simm gets some meat of his own, and he’s particularly strong when working opposite the wonderful Polly Walker, but even when he’s just “being a reporter,” he’s a pleasure to watch.
Kelly Macdonald and James McAvoy, as two younger reporters, are also quite good, although I’ve got such a soft spot for Macdonald that I’m not sure she can ever do wrong in my eyes. But the real star of the show in the newsroom is Nighy, as newsroom editor Cameron Foster. This role feels tailor made for Nighy’s talents, requiring smarts, sarcasm, and just a little bit of oil. Nighy, as always, fails to disappoint and he’s so good, in fact, that he’s the reason Morrissey didn’t win the BAFTA — he took it for himself. He doesn’t get the same emotionally-heightened character arcs that Simm, Morrissey and Walker are given to play with, but this works to Nighy’s advantage, as he’s generally at his best when he’s playing a little reserved and checked-out.
Of course, the task for all the actors to deliver such great performances is made significantly easier courtesy of a solid script. Although there are moments of quick plot development or fast action (typically in the form of a chase), the show really shines because of an overall slower pace. Everything is given some room to breathe on its own, which is particularly fitting as we watch journalistic investigation in action. And it manages to do this without slowing or dumbing down the dialogue itself. One of my favorite verbal-quip moments came in a newsroom conversation, where Simm’s Cal is trying to get Kelly Macdonald’s Della to let someone crash in her apartment:
Cal: Come on, you’re in a flat on your own needing company.
Della: Not your kind of company, no.
Cameron: No what.
Blonde Receptionist: Nothing what?
Cameron: Mind your nose.
Blonde: When I first started working here people had all sorts of conversations in front of me!
Cameron: What does that tell you about your mouth?
I’m loathe to really tell you more about the plot than the few things I’ve already mentioned because, much like “The Wire” (though not as dense or rich), part of the pleasure of this show is watching things unfold. Although that being said, the weekest part about the series actually is the plot itself. While there are a few unexpected turns here and there, it doesn’t stray too far from the now generally rote “political conspiracy that may reach higher than anyone thought and, oh by the way, may involve an evil corporation.” It’s not entirely formulaic and, as I say, there were a few things that I either just didn’t see coming or which veered off in a slightly different direction. But at the end of the day, none of that really matters because the style, the pacing and, most importantly, the acting is really what carries this.
All of which is why I’m concerned about the movie. It actually has a great cast of its own and, aside from Ben Affleck (who takes on Morrissey’s politician role), everyone is capable of matching the BBC show’s performances (particularly Helen Mirren as the newsroom editor, who could be quite delicious in the role if they let her have some fun with it). The problem is, the flick just doesn’t have the luxury to pace things out and let the great cast just do their thing. Given the fact that they had to trim six hours down to two, it’s unsurprising that the trailer makes the movie look like little more than a beefed-up thriller, because you just can’t let something like this have the slow breathe it needs when you’ve only got two hours to work with.
Which isn’t to say the movie will suck — it’s entirely possible that it will wind up being quite good, but I feel very safe in saying that the original is better. So go see the film this weekend if you’d like (I’ll likely see it, myself, both because of the cast and because of a curiosity to compare it ot the original with this show so fresh on my noggin), but do yourself a favor afterwards and rent the DVDs. If the movie hews close to the TV show, you’re going to need something to wash out the taste of melodramatic Affleck when all is said and done. You’ll thank me in the morning.