You want to get really deep into the multiple meanings of the word “want”? Or the sheer corrosive power of doubt? Check out the star-studded British miniseries National Treasure on Hulu.
Paul Finchley (Robbie Coltrane) is the slightly more out-to-pasture half of a famous comedy duo; we open on him presenting a lifetime achievement award to his former partner, Karl (Tim McInnerny). He has a troubled adult daughter, Dee (Andrea Riseborough) and an extraordinarily patient and loyal wife, Marie (Julie Walters). Things are imperfect—but under control—until Finchley finds himself accused of having raped a young woman in his on-set trailer many years prior. He didn’t do it; it’s some poor woman’s desperate cry for attention. But he’s a celebrity, so of course other people start coming forward (including Dee’s old babysitter), and the whole family has to go through the ordeal of a high-profile trial. Which isn’t even the rough part. The rough part is the way trust unravels as memories coalesce, facts come to light, perspectives shift—until nothing seems real anymore and everyone’s history, even identity, is thrown into question.
I love the way these episodes are filmed. There is a beautifully rendered motif of reflection shots—someone captured in a mirror or some reflective surface in the house, creating a visual sense of double lives, double identities, split loyalties. (There’s a particularly awesome image of Marie and her reflection walking away in opposite directions, echoing her completely conflicted feelings about the situation.) National Treasure also uses extreme close-ups to its advantage, by turns revealing and denuding characters—and Coltrane and Walters are both absolute feasts for the camera. Coltrane is simultaneously charming and repulsive, sorrowful and ebullient, arrogant and pathetic, loving and conniving. You feel badly for him until you can’t; then you dislike him. Until you can’t. It’s an incredible, nuanced performance: a fairly disturbing portrait of a man so inured to acting that it’s hard to know if he’s ever not doing it, and so wired for positive attention that you expect him to crack any second, only to find he’s calmly-even pleasurably-chatting with swarms of paparazzi about his case.
Walters, likewise, can do so much with tiny gestures and facial expressions that the camera could stay glued to her face for half of the episode without it becoming boring. She oscillates between demure, maybe even fragile, and tough as nails, and she does so seamlessly. She’s made a commitment to a difficult marriage and let a lot of stuff go, and what she believed she was getting in return for forgiveness was transparency—the naked, if ugly, truth. Once that’s thrown into question, it’s a bit of an identity crisis for a long-term spouse: If I don’t even understand who or what I married, who does that make me? Finding out that you are (or even might be) living in a house of cards is terrifying, and Walters holds that reality to the light in every line, every gesture, every close-up.
Want. We watch Coltrane deal with the discomfort that he might be less “wanted” than his former partner, in the public eye. Then he finds out what it means to be “wanted” for a crime he insists he did not commit. Then, as the jigsaw puzzle of the narrative snaps together, a whole pattern of want and the compulsive gratification of want emerges and his story is increasingly… well, found wanting.
So there’s the question of whether he’s guilty. And there’s the question of whether he’ll get off regardless. And they’re two different questions, and they each also have multiple meanings.
National Treasure is a fantastic investigation into the shadows of the human psyche, with forceful and deeply layered performances—by everyone, really, but particularly Coltrane and Walters, who are both just superb. At four episodes, it’s marvelous binge material. Make popcorn.
National Treasure premieres today on Hulu.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.