Broadchurch review: A show that treats rape with unstinting realism and sensitivity

The detective series is a study in division,and it also asks tough questions about our approach to victims

Good cop, sad cop: Olivia Colman, David Tennant and Julie Hesmondhalgh in Broadchurch

Good cop, sad cop: Olivia Colman, David Tennant and Julie Hesmondhalgh in Broadchurch

 

At one point during the opening episode of Broadchurch (TV3, Monday, 10pm), now beginning its third and final season, Olivia Colman’s detective sergeant Ellie Miller snaps at a new recruit when she wonders if the victim of a serious crime is telling the truth. “Once you’ve completed your sexual offences training, Katie, you’ll understand we always start from the position of believing the victim.”

This almost serves an admonishment towards the viewer too, perhaps even to the programme makers, as the gravity of a rape and its consequences are folded, with unstinting realism and sensitivity, into the format of a mystery story.

Given that the first two seasons of Chris Chibnall’s Dorset-based crime drama revolved around a child’s murder, there has always been an onus on the series to resist the glib tug of genre formula. Here, the first act plays out with unusually careful detail and sombreness; it feels as though television is also undertaking sexual offences training. “Everyone will be led by you,” a subdued Trish is told, while Miller offers encouragement and tea. The only thing that isn’t calmly reassuring is Ólafur Arnald’s soundtrack, a staple element of the series, which emanates instead with ominous reverberations.

That reminds you, however, that this is a show that must also specialise in secrecy and suspicion. For all its portent, its rugged coastal landscapes and late summer haze, the domestic detail of private lives and its police procedural realism, this remains a whodunit: Trish could not see or identify her attacker.

The audience for such a genre is primed to suspect everyone, including the victim, but a sensitive depiction of sexual violence forbids the question. “Do you believe me?” asks Trish, drawn and wary, in Julie Hesmondhalgh’s muted and unnerving performance. As the show settles into a more generic trail of clues, through which belief will be led, spun and tested, this is going to become a fascinatingly thorny question.

Back at Trish’s home, Miller offers the victim sympathy, still more tea and – highly against procedure – her personal number (“Every time, Miller!” her partner later scolds her, aware of the series’ procedure), while David Tennant’s grisly, lugubrious DI Hardy snoops around for clues. This is their routine: good cop, sad cop.

Likewise, detective shows obey certain patterns. The rolling country lawns of a manor home offers up a bounty of evidence, from dried blood to a torn condom wrapper: “I think this is where it could have happened,” says Miller, purely to launch the camera into another foreboding aerial shot of England’s bucolic menace. And persons of interest abound, from the husband of Trish’s friend, whom the camera roundly incriminates (do we believe it?), to Trish’s employer, glimpsed – blamelessly and only for a moment – being very suspiciously played by Lenny Henry. (Clues here are leading, but a celebrity is like a smoking gun.)

Broadchurch is otherwise a study in division: of a wounded community, a jagged trail of broken marriages and stressed single parents. So far it is seeking a certain split in the viewer too, nudged between sensitivity and suspicion, playing our good cop and bad cop against each other.

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