National Treasure is a remarkable piece of TV drama, and it looks for a long, bewildering moment like a masterpiece. It presents that wonderwork of an actor Robbie Coltrane as an old comedian, famous, mild, and poised, who is charged with a historic rape and sexual assault. Julie Walters — Mrs. Weasley to his Hagrid — gives what may be the greatest performance of her career as his loyal wife, and there are superb performances by Andrea Riseborough as their junkie daughter, and Tim McInerny as Coltrane’s old comic partner. The script is by Tim Thorne — who recently wrote that stunning miniseries The Virtues — and the best of National Treasure (perhaps as much as four fifths of it) is very fine indeed. But then there are some easy calls and some conventional melodramatic ones, and the effect is to dissipate the whole.
Robbie Coltrane has always been one of the better actors on earth and this was manifest 25 years ago when he did Cracker and played that demon-drinker, demon-gambler of a Manchester-based detective who was one of the more remarkable of his breed since Philip Marlowe. Coltrane is one of those so-called character actors who radiates magnetism in a positively archaic way.
As the comedian who becomes the object of what looks like a fishing expedition, he is wonderfully understated and mellow, as well as caustic and disconcerting, in a portrait of a man who seems to have always been true to his wife in his fashion and is capable of a tenderness that matches his irony and wit. The voice is high Scots, modulated and charming, and the eyes are those of a histrionic master as you follow the progressive revelations and duplicities of this septuagenarian man of a thousand moves.
Julie Walters matches and counterpoints him at every turn in her crystalline characterisation of a worldly woman — Catholic in her commitments and her sense of mercy, we hear her saying the Hail Mary — and bored by but endlessly forgiving of the reek of other women on the man she has loved for a lifetime. It’s a magnificent performance, diamond-sharp, multifaceted. And Riseborough is terrific as the damaged intelligent daughter, McInerny as the mate who’s always pined for Walters.
So, what goes wrong? Well, it doesn’t help that the leads are played in brief flashback by unconvincing imitations of their past selves, and it doesn’t help that the dark abysm of the past is allowed to rear its head in a way that is at once predictable (or would be in a lesser bit of television) and lacking in inevitability, at least in the way it’s presented, like a jack-in-the-box nemesis.
In The Virtues, Jack Thorne envisaged people doing terrible things for comprehensible reasons. And this is also characteristic of the American whodunit Mare of Easttown where the structure is polyphonic and Dostoyevskian understanding is extended to everyone. But somehow in National Treasure there is a failure of nerve and we come ultimately to be looking at a universe where cats get out of bags for no good reason.
None of which is to diminish the splendour of the central performances or the complexity of what seems to be Thorne’s essential conception.
The women who accuse Coltrane at the trial are impressive and poignant and National Treasure is better than most attempts to present the legal dialectic that divides sympathies and confuses judgements. Kerry Fox gives an impressive performance with booming foghorn Antipodean accent as Coltrane’s defense barrister.
It’s all so impressive but then there’s some kind of misstep in the exposition — of which the ensuing cutout past selves may stand as an emblem — that somehow seems to work as a self-defeating mechanism and which mutates National Treasure into a lesser thing as if something in this dark and luminous drama had failed to live up to its creators’ deeper convictions.
It’s not anything so simple as saying it has the wrong kind of denouement or that the outcome should be weighted in a different direction, but it’s a bit of a disappointment because the hopes raised are so high in the face of very difficult, shrouded material.
None of which is to suggest anyone should miss National Treasure. The two lead performances — from Coltrane and Walters — are revelations of emotional worlds we know but have never quite seen like this before.
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