Taken Down: A major step forward for Irish television drama

Review: A sombre tale of desperate lives from Jo Spain and ‘Love/Hate’ creator Stuart Carolan

The official trailer for Taken Down, a new crime drama from author Jo Spain and Love/Hate creator Stuart Carolan. Video: RTÉ

 

Here’s an arresting idea for a police procedural: a murder mystery where the suspects are already in prison.

At least, that’s the forcible impression of Taken Down (RTÉ One, Sunday, 9.30pm), a sombre and stately crime drama from the author Jo Spain and Love/Hate creator Stuart Carolan, set largely in a direct provision centre.

That is both a risky and intelligent move. Despite the grittiness of the genre, most people watch crime drama for escapism, to work off their antagonisms rather than accrue any more, yet the Irish asylum process ought to be a national scandal.

We first meet the show’s central characters, the Bankole family, when they are rescued from a migrant raft on which their father died horrifically. How long can they expect to stay in an Irish direct provision centre, asks the stoic Abeni Bankole (Aïssa Maïga). A number of weeks, or months, she is told. Nothing in the show is quite as jolting as the immediate title: “Eight years later.”

This, it should be pointed out, is not a crime with which the detectives are concerned. Instead, Inspector Jen Rooney (Lynn Rafferty) is roused from her hospital bed, where, it is implied, she has just lost a pregnancy, to investigate the death of a young Nigerian woman, found bludgeoned to death outside the direct provision centre. Full credit to the location scout who settled on this grim building of faded grandeur close to Dublin Port, which couldn’t look more uncannily like a hotel in a wasteland.

Director David Caffrey matches that sense of limbo with a crepuscular Dublin shot mostly at dawn. That one character, an Algerian Muslim asylum seeker named Samir (Slimane Dazi), can never sleep is entirely fitting. This is no kind of life.

That makes for a subtly layered drama of suspicion and suffocation. Abeni’s son Isaiah (an excellent Aaron Edo) is now a teenager, growing up without privacy and straining at the confines of curfew. His mother assumes that his flirtations with the victim will bring trouble – that they will be deported “if they think we are undesirable” – and so their co-operation is less than fulsome. Is it any wonder that Samir looks shifty when he is always being watched? “You’re acting very suspicious,” barks a garda who is acting very racist. Everybody here has something to hide.

Orla Fitzgerald and Lynn Rafferty in Taken Down
Orla Fitzgerald and Lynn Rafferty in Taken Down

Concealment brings its own challenges to drama. Rafferty’s performance, for instance, is currently muted to the point of seeming wooden, either because her character is swallowing down private pain, or because impassivity is what passes for “gritty” these days.

Brian Gleeson, meanwhile, steals every scene that’s not nailed down as the centre’s ineffectual and prattling manager. His bluff, convoluted explanation of a duplicated log book makes considerably more sense than Rooney’s bewildering clipped instruction to keep the disappearance of an asylum seeker secret. “I don’t want it leaking out,” she says. To whom? The point of the show is that this is hardly a high-profile case.

Occasionally Taken Down does fall prey to glaring clichés: the trapped man who keeps a caged songbird; the pathologist insensitively eating in the mortuary; the partner stating the bleedin’ obvious.

But in almost every other respect this counts as a major advance for an Irish television drama, recruiting genuinely new faces to major roles, telling untapped stories of a Dublin limbo, and exploring a hidden side to Ireland impossible to sensationalise.

In one appreciable irony, the most depressive character gives the show’s most optimistic maxim, quoting the poet Rumi: “When life is turned upside-down, how do you know that the side you are used to is better than the one to come?” That could be the migrant’s credo.

For a television drama testing new ground, it bodes well for what is yet to come.

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