Guilt: A fabulously funny black comedy

Review: In this moral satire, two Scottish brothers discover the perfect victim. Can they get away scot-free?

Guilt: Jamie Sives and Mark Bonnar strike a perfect balance as contrasting siblings. Photograph: Mark Mainz/Happy Tramp North/Expectation/BBC

Guilt: Jamie Sives and Mark Bonnar strike a perfect balance as contrasting siblings. Photograph: Mark Mainz/Happy Tramp North/Expectation/BBC

 

It is late at night on the dark Scottish roads and two brothers are arguing after the wedding they have departed together. That the occasion found the resources to release a rabble of butterflies into the air charms the brother at the wheel, a worrywart named Jake (Jamie Sives), who is uninsured to drive and slightly stoned.

That it featured a cash bar has infuriated Max (Mark Bonnar), surly, entitled and too drunk to drive his own sleek car. “You’ve got no soul,” sighs Jake. “You’ve got too much,” snipes Max. Guilt (BBC Two, Wednesday, 9pm), a fabulously funny black comedy, is about to put this joint hypothesis to the test.

With a mood somewhere between Hitchcock and Danny Boyle, and the fastidious compositions of both, the show imagines a surreal morality in hot pursuit of the brothers

For out of nowhere, it seems, a body bounces across the bonnet in a residential road. The soulful Jake checks the man’s pulse. There isn’t one. The soulless Max double checks by kicking the body in the flank. “Shit,” he mutters.

Totting up the likely consequences, while dragging the body from the road, and then across the grass, and finally inside his own house, they don’t so much stumble through the perfect crime as discover a perfect victim: An elderly loner, with a terminal disease, which was bound to kill him anyway. Who is to say it didn’t?

Neil Forsyth’s four-part series turns justice into an elaborate cosmic joke. That the wheels of morality are set in motion by this rash cover up isn’t quite as pleasing as the way Forsyth depicts that motion, with the inevitability of dread and the chicanes of farce.

Jake hasn’t just lost sleep over the event, he has also lost his wallet, now waiting for him at the wake of the deceased. There he discovers the victim’s sole relative, an American niece (beautifully played by Ruth Bradley), with whom – encouraged by a wary Max – he hits it off, later waking up, with a pounding hangover, in the bed of the man he has killed. In one grimly funny detail, director Robert McKillop lets us see clumps of hair still in the brush by the bedside, like an accusing relic.

Guilt: the show imagines a surreal morality in hot pursuit of the brothers. Photograph: Mark Mainz/Happy Tramp North/Expectation/BBC
Guilt: the show imagines a surreal morality in hot pursuit of the brothers. Photograph: Mark Mainz/Happy Tramp North/Expectation/BBC

Bonnar’s ferociously insincere solicitor, who speaks his lines as though preparing for a headbutt, and Sives’s steadily sinking music store owner strike a perfect balance as contrasting siblings. Forsyth ensures that tension and hilarity must spend equal amounts of time together. With a mood somewhere between Hitchcock and Danny Boyle, and the fastidious compositions of both, the show imagines a surreal morality in hot pursuit of the brothers.

Take Kenny (Emun Elliot), the sozzled investigator whom Max had earlier fired from his law firm (“My head’s minced with the bevvy,” Kenny admitted) then cynically hires in order to botch this investigation. Kenny, of course, miraculously chooses to reform, as though instructed by a mordant universe: “I’ve never been more focused,” he announces. “I’m going to nail this one for you, folks.”

Each twist invites a sinister little snigger, as Max and Jake become steadily more entangled in the web they weave. “Yeah, we’re ok,” counsels Max, by the first episode’s end, when nothing could be further from the truth. These two brothers from Edinburgh’s no-nonsense Leith really ought to know there’s no such thing as getting away scot-free.

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