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McMafia review: Family tragedy and organised crime intertwine

Lavishly-made crime thriller takes in political intrigue, high finance and human trafficking

James Norton as Alex Godman in the BBC drama, McMafia. Photograph: Nick Wall/BBC/PA Wire

You’d be forgiven for reading the title of the BBC’s big budget, globe-trotting new crime drama and getting the wrong idea completely.

It is not, as you might assume, a detailed picture of organised crime in Scotland. Nor is it a stinging takedown of mass-market racketeering.

It is, instead, a thoroughly gripping and fascinatingly detailed family tragedy set against the global expansion of organised crime, both of which owe their circumstances to the fall of the Soviet Union. A better title might have been The Russia House, although that, sadly, was already taken.

This too is a lavishly-made crime drama based on a book, taking in political intrigue, black-tie functions and high finance, palatial London apartments, drug runners and human trafficking. But unlike The Night Manager, for example, this eight-part series is much more complex in characterisation and context, adapted from Misha Glenny’s well-researched work of non-fiction by screenwriter Hossein Amini and director James Watkins.

Like the McMafias of the world, this gives the show a bullish advantage; weaving a compelling narrative from vivid textures, outpacing its rivals in ambition, verve and detail.

“God, what does it take to corrupt you?” James Norton’s Alex is asked, during a flirtatious play in an Israeli pleasure den, but that is also the more serious question of the show. The son of an exiled Russian oligarch, raised in England, Alex is a hedge fund manager, keen to distance himself from his uncle’s ongoing connections to dodgy international operatives. When a Russian rival survives an assassination attempt, and seeks grisly retaliation, Alex is drawn deeper and deeper into a moral morass in an effort to protect his family.

The brooding thrill of the series is the brisk way it connects dots between Russia, India, the Arabian Peninsula, Eastern Europe, London and beyond – not to rack up exotic destinations but to convey its busy nexus of crime. Satisfyingly, it pays as much attention to its characters, such as the alcoholic, depressed patriarch Dmitri (Alexey Serebryakov), the warm but dissolute uncle, Boris (David Dencik), and, most of all, in the subtly stranded figure of Alex, cloaked in the charm of “the English Gentleman”.

Here Norton, who has proven himself an actor of substance in War and Peace and Happy Valley, uses his good looks as a kind of disguise: “Always that smile,” mocks his uncle, as though he is unreadable.

Perhaps he is. If Alex, as the show suggests, doesn’t comfortably belong anywhere – distrusted in London, alienated from Russia – his apparently strict moral compass may also be given to waver. In this world of frauds, he may not even know himself.

“By deception we will do war,” says the dependably shady David Straithairn, adopting the Mossad motto, playing a Russian-Israeli businessman with whom Alex forms an alliance. That is also how McMafia does business, and here it makes for an exciting, nervy and encouragingly human picture of everybody trapped in its web.