It’s faint praise to say Sasha Lane was one of the best things in the BBC’s stonkingly snoozy adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends. Blame the Rooney backlash – quickly replaced by the backlash to the backlash – or that it starred the human sedative that is Taylor Swift’s ex Joe Alwyn, but Conversations landed like the anti-Normal People.
Powered by Paul Mescal’s nippy full-forward energy, Normal People dazzled audiences. Conversations did the opposite by sending them into a stupor. But as even viewers fought to stay awake, Lane shone as the bohemian Bobbi.
She is just as impressive in a very different role in The Crowded Room (Apple TV+, streaming from Friday), a knotty psychological thriller executive-produced by its star Tom Holland. Lane and Holland feature in the punchy opening, where friends Ariana and Danny take the subway to midtown Manhattan one bright day in 1979 and start shooting up the place.
Technically, Ariana is the one pulling the trigger. This is after Danny wimps out of shooting their target – whose identity is revealed much later, one of a number of bombshells strewn through the 10 episodes.
The Crowded Room is adapted from a true-crime novel, the title of which constitutes a spoiler. (Don’t google it.) Early on, it is pacy and mysterious. We join Danny on the day his life changes – that shoot-out in Manhattan – and then catch up with him after his arrest, as he is lightly grilled by Prof Rya Goodwin (Amanda Seyfried).
As he talks about the events leading up to the shooting – from which we see Ariana flee – the story unspools into a heady meditation on life on the margins of 1970s New York. As it does so, Holland acquits himself well in one of his few big roles outside of the Marvel Universe (where he, of course, plays Spider-Man).
But the wonderful period details – all that brown and corduroy – eventually give way to a narrative pivot which reveals that Danny’s perspective on the world is less solid than initially appears. Things are not as they seem – especially when Jason Isaacs enters as a London bounder with whom Danny connects on a trip to the UK.
Your response to The Crowded Room will ultimately hinge on where you stand on the concept of the unreliable narrator. If that feels like cheating, you may consider yourself hoodwinked. A few may enjoy the bumpy journey – no matter that they may feel the schmaltzy final instalment is too much.
In the case of Sasha Lane, the dominant emotion is likely to be deja vu. She has once again put in a committed performance in an uneven series – though, unlike Conversations With Friends, The Crowded Room at least maintains a pulse even as the initially febrile tempo settles into something more cosy and predictable.