Darklands: Dublin gangland never looked so dazzling, queasy and unapologetically violent

TV review: MMA fighting and gang crime intersect in Virgin Media’s exciting new show

The unapologetically violent Darklands is filmed with cinematic flourish and queasy realism

Darklands (Virgin Media One, Monday, 9pm), a sombre new Irish crime drama created by filmmaker Mark O'Connor, begins by offering its young protagonist a glimpse at two diverging possibilities. In one, filmed with a cinematic flourish of dazzling lights and cheering crowds, he stands as a taught hero in a prizefighter's cowl.

In the other, filmed with queasy realism, he is roused from his sleep by a handgun within kissing distance of his face pointed by his younger sister. For a moment, it’s hard to tell which sequence is the dream.

This is Damien Dunne (Dane Whyte O'Hara), an aspiring teenage mixed martial arts star, still in school, and the gun, we quickly learn, belongs to his older brother, Wesley (Damian Gildea). "Probably best not to tell Da," Wesley reasons, more embarrassed than guilty.

Besides, they have other things to worry about, like Damien’s evening bout. His sister, now safely disarmed, would like to see it. “No, love, it’s too violent for you,” assures their harried mother, Delores (Barbara Bergin).


You have no idea.

Darklands isn’t so keen to protect us from violence, but in its depiction of small-town Dublin gangland, here in Bray, it isn’t in any hurry to titillate us either.

Any show that gives a considerable amount of its running time to the last-minute hunt for a getaway van, or a character’s exhausting Raging-Bull regimen to shed two pounds before a weigh in, is too scrupulous about grounding detail to start sensationalising grubby deeds.

Wesley's employers, for instance, a brother and sister pair called Butsy (a nicely growling pretender played by Thommas Kane Byrne) and Bernie (Judith Roddy, surly and slow), aren't criminal royalty but eager opportunists, courting a major player, aware that a Kinahan-style routing has left an opening in the marketplace.

In Damien’s fight scenes, filmed in pummelling close-up or through the shaking mesh of an Octagon fighting cage, violence is unapologetically exciting but also wearying. “Keep the fight standing,” Mark O’Halloran advises as Damien’s watchful coach Paddy. “If he does get you down, just stay calm. You’ll find your way back to your feet.”

Whyte O’Hara, a seasoned fighter but a new actor, is not given to natural display, which suits the character: it’s not until he wins his fight that you finally see his guarded facial expression break into a victorious smile. Like his dream, he might be a hero after all.

If that's the narrative that co-writers Adam Coates, John Moloney and O'Connor (who also directs) have laid out for him, this hero may be the tragic kind. Paired with local girl Nicola, whose brothers belong to a rival gang, Damian is already a star-crossed lover, trapped by fate even before his brother's disappearance pushes him closer the life under the gun.

“Do you not feel like an animal in a cage?” his girlfriend asks, perhaps prematurely, of his punishing MMA pursuits. Damien demurs, and both his scenes in the ring and his rhetoric underscore the liberation of discipline and skill. It’s the world his brother has chosen that seems more confining, and the dark intimations of this confident new drama, is that now those walls are closing in.