Friday, January 24, 2014

Broadchurch - By Grace Ye Have Been Saved

David Tennant as Alec Hardy and Arthur Darvill as Rev. Paul Coates and  in Broadchurch Episode 6

[The first of a series of posts which bind my twin loves, philosophy and TV detectives, for no reason whatsoever. Next up: Inspector Morse: The Transcendence of Art, Sherlock Holmes - The Aragorn Complex. Upcoming: Foyle's War and moral absolutes.]

“A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret...that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!”
~Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Broadchurch isn't a murder mystery. Sure, there's a whodunit at the center of the plot, but that's not really what it's about. Instead of whisking in a clever clogs London detective who then, having dispensed almost divine justice, sweeps cleanly out of the aftermath, Broadchurch places its two main characters directly in the path of the storm.

Modern fiction - much Christian fiction, as well - isn't always very good about dealing with such weighty subject matter. When grief comes, it's either ignored glibly, or embraced, as if there's nothing to be done about it. While "soft-boiled" mysteries primarily deal with justice, "hard-boiled" gritty thrillers are often hopeless and bleak. In cinema, actions are divorced from effects, and we don't have to get into the nitty-gritty of consequences. Broadchurch is all about consequences. The victim is eleven-year-old Danny Latimer, and this time, there is no looking away.

Like many detective shows, we have a pair of investigators wildly varying in personality, background, and method. On one hand there’s grumpy, isolationist, fiercely lonely D.I. Alec Hardy (David Tennant, Doctor Who). On the other is D.S. Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman, The Iron Lady), empathetic, gracious, and happily married.

Unlike many detective shows, these two do not fall into the prescribed parts of sociopathic maverick and solid, rather dull family man (in this case family woman.) In most shows, even if the grumpy detective is unhappy and acerbic, all this adds to his attraction and odd charisma, and we don't hold it against him—as with Sherlock or Endeavour Morse. The sidekick is, by comparison, little more than comic relief with a side of loyalty, and we stay out of his or her real life.

Broadchurch avoids both pitfalls. Instead, we see that Alec’s distance helps him to be a better detective, but not necessarily a better man. The remarkable David Tennant more than distances himself from his role as the Doctor (finally a ginger!), creating a likeable, if somewhat cliched, Scottish curmudgeon. His distance from humanity is not glamorized, but shown as the tragic result of accepting the evil of humanity; it's less a luxury than a necessary curse.

As for Ellie Miller...Olivia Colman is a force of nature, portraying the warmhearted Ellie as she slowly watches her home town fall apart. Her empathy is the beating heart of the series.

But while we do have our protagonists, Broadchurch's citizens are far more than just suspects, with amazing performances from (seriously) every single member of the cast. Of course, suspicion is spread around - even the actors didn't know the killer's identity until late in the four-month shoot. We get to know shop-owners and tavern-keepers, journalists and plumbers and priests and grandmothers.

Central to all this is the Latimer family. We watch them deal with grief in real time. Particularly good is Beth Latimer (Jodie Whittaker, Cranford), who, like Olivia Colman, takes our emotions through the gamut as the series progresses, though her husband, Mark Latimer (Andrew Buchan, Garrow's Law) is also terrific.
There are other consequences, as grief is only one ill plaguing the small tourist center on Britain's South West shores. Sin of many varieties lurks in what seems an idyllic village, but as the WORLD review pointed out, in Broadchurch we see the aftermath, not the act, and this "focus on the fallout of sinful choices rather than sin itself makes it far more true-to-life than many 'gritty' dramas praised for their realism. After all, the pain of wickedness usually lasts exponentially longer than the pleasure, though TV producers tend to show the inverse."

This example of the loose standards of an increasingly secularized modern Britain may make some Christians uncomfortable, but along with its portrayal of the negative consequences of these actions, Broadchurch also shows us a glimpse of hope in the character of a young reverend, Paul Coates (Arthur Darvill, Doctor Who.) I won't say more, but this spiritual angle turns an already compelling story into something extraordinary. Here is a portrayal of a vicar as a human being, not a caricature, as he displays an earnest, biblical response to the murder's effects in his community. For we "do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope." (1. Thes. 4:13, NIV) In the end, Broadchurch presents a powerful example of the Gospel's healing power.

That's not to say Broadchurch is a theological treatise (read: boring) - it does adhere to a certain format, and the hunt for the killer is an integral part of the story. It's hard not to get caught up in revelations of the town's secrets (really, a few too many to be believable, but everyone must have a motive). Still, the emphasis is not so much on the investigation as the effects of the murder throughout the town, and the media circus which flocks to the kill. It is brutally realistic in its portrayal of the ravages of our tabloid culture, as we clamor for each salacious detail, and are quick to paint a blacker picture than truly exists. As a character points out, "You wanted easy answers, and scapegoats, and bogeymen. The world's more grey." [Nonspecific spoilers below]

When the ending finally did come, I found myself just as guilty as the journalists (for more of my thoughts on that see here- I had wanted the killer to be, frankly, someone that I hadn't come to know, someone safe and easy to hate, a stranger or a Moriarty. I wanted a good thrilling shoot-em-up finale. I wanted the illusive bonds of intimacy to be real, and for human beings to really be worthy of trust. But it isn't much of a spoiler that Broadchurch, quite rightly, refuses to settle for "easy answers." Ephesians 2:8-9 remains true, and sometimes we need to be brought face to face with death and the truths it unveils to realize that.

"For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." (ESV)

Through dark and light I fight to be
So close
Shadows and lies mask you from me
So close
Bath my skin, the darkness within
So close
The war of our lives no one can win

The missing piece I yearn to find

So close
Please clear the anguish from my mind
So close
But when truth of you comes clear
So close
I wish my life had never come here
So close
Through dark and light I fight to be
So close
Shadows and lies mask you from me
~Olafur Arnalds, “So Close”

The episodes sometimes vary in quality, and the story could probably have been abridged, but overall this show is phenomenal. The music is haunting, it's beautifully shot, it has a glorious ensemble cast and an atmospheric setting.

So, I have to give...
5/5 stars.

I review the American remake, Gracepoint, here.

And the second season of Broadchurch here.



  1. Aaaah, I KNOW I've seen Olivia Colman in something before. Must identify... I'm great at recognizing when I've seen a face before but not always the best at figuring out where.

    1. No, I think I've got it now. I watched some skits from a short-lived British comedy show called Bruiser where she was featured (if you want to see a young Martin Freeman in action some of them are hilarious, though not all family appropriate---look up "The Cultural Giant"), and I think I may also have caught some of her appearances on the Mitchell and Webb show. She's great at comedy.

  2. And thanks for another great review, will totally have to check it out on (*delicate cough*) the usual interweb spots. Seriously, more people need to read your writing! How many views do you get per day? To think that Rachel Held Evans has thousands of adoring fans flocking to her poor excuse for good writing daily while actual thinkers like you lie quietly undiscovered.

    1. Ha flatter me. But now I feel better about going off to work on my English 112 assignment for the week.

      I don't pay as much attention as I used to, but probably 100 views or so per day - and that scattered across my 100+ posts. Really, it's things like these - reviews of popular shows like Sherlock or Endeavour - that bring in the traffic (my new movie blog, for instance, is getting attention more quickly.)

      As for Broadchurch, it really is excellent - just have a box of tissues handy. I think I left a significant chunk of my heart in that show (and *not* just the part following David Tennant around swooning over his lovely Scottish accent. Though there is that.)

  3. Now that I have watched the whole thing, I have very mixed feelings. On the one hand I was stunned by Tennant and Coleman's heart-stopping acting. Standing O for both of those actors. Also very impressed by the family. And the script is amazingly raw and authentic-feeling. I also absolutely loved the character of the reverend, and loved the sincere faith and subtle pro-life message they conveyed through him.

    However...and I hope you won't consider this too spoiler-ish, but I couldn't shake the feeling as all the threads came together that there was an ever-so-subtle attempt to normalize pedophilia. Maybe you're going to say, "No, that's overreading," and there are moments when it is treated with the proper horror. Yet the various subplots seemed a little too deliberately synchronized, in addition to the repeated references to Mark's loving Beth when she was 15. It seemed like there was almost an unspoken, "REALLY, what's the difference?" question being asked. Does age even matter as much as *all that*? Is what we call "pedophilia" really such a ghastly, horrible thing, or just another way of expressing love? You know which two characters' stories I'm comparing in my head as I write this. And I resist that implied question, because it's so pernicious the more you think about it. Moreover, the constant cropping-up of that one theme spelled "Laziness" to me, from a purely artistic stance.

    Finally, I kept looking for redemption, and I saw earlier glimpses of it with the reverend, but precious little by the end. A little sermon, a nice symbolic scene and... well, not much else. I can't really articulate exactly what I WAS looking for, but I guess when Overstreet says "This is gospel," I expect a bit more.

    1. *THERE SHALL BE SPOILERS* Actually, I agree, somewhat. My initial reaction was similar. I felt disgusted, and yet rebuked by my own disgust. One character said "I pity you", while I couldn't even do that. The fact that there was little forgiveness between my two favorite female characters was also disappointing. So there's that, but I think it may say more about my expectations than anything. 1, I didn't suspect you-know-who (while apparently the rest of the world did), 2, my impressions were also shaped by Overstreet's recommendation, and I expected something more concretely inspirational, 3, since he highlighted Olivia Colman, I identified intensely with her, and didn't expect that they would do the things they did with her story.

      I've watched the last episode 2 1/2 times now (the 1/2 was, coincidentally, with a lady who went through a very similar situation to Ellie, and she gave Colman top marks on accuracy), and it was the 2nd time that hit me. I saw the community healing, the family healing, and I focused less on the Millers than the town itself. I was moved by it entirely differently than the 1st time, which left me hollow.

      Anyway, besides that, I do agree that there is a sympathy for pedophiles, the sinner, not the sin. There's a sympathy for those feelings, or desires, and it points out that we try and dehumanize them by putting them in categories, like it's an illness that we don’t have. Pedophilia is one of our society’s favorite sins to hate, a sort of everlasting touchstone for evil, like the Nazis. I really don't think there was any suggestion that what You Know Who was doing is right. Alec Hardy talks about the killer trying to justify his feelings, which is something I think we all try to do (not necessarily with pedophilia, but many things, including illicit sexual feelings.) I suppose it can be taken both ways, but I felt Broadchurch wasn’t justifying sin, but identifying it: “yes, pedophilia is wrong - but that’s no excuse, look at your own heart, and you will see evil there.” A constant theme is that of not trusting, because the human heart is “unknowable.” Sin is dividing the community from the very first minutes—even if it doesn’t look like it. By the end, the only real trust which has been forged is through the medium of the church, which accepts the broken not despite their honesty about failures, but because of it. “You know us,” the Latimers tell Paul Coates, when asking him to counsel them. In what later struck me as a key scene, Paul tells Hardy: “There was a fear that you couldn’t address, a gap that you couldn’t plug. Because all you have is suspicion and an urge to blame whoever is in closest proximity….People need hope.” When all the lies have been stripped away, there is only one saving grace.

      Anyway, didn't mean to write an epistle - that's just what I've come to think, after rewatching bits and reading this one review in particular of the last episode. Though I still vividly remember that my first impressions were very conflicting.

    2. That's quite all right, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people I know to whom I could recommend this show, especially after the finale. So, it's fun to explore it with someone else who's actually seen it!

      I think one of my problems with the ending (besides harping on an already tired thematic element) was that it was so non sequitur. After all that elaborate buildup, I didn't really connect emotionally when the big reveal came, except insofar as I felt for Colman's character and the rest of the town. I WANTED to care as much as the town did, but I couldn't generate the emotion because so little groundwork had been laid with that character (which is very sloppy mystery writing too!) The rest of the show did such a good job helping me actually enter into the people's pain with them that I felt a bit disappointed by that.

      I disagree that we should always feel guilty for being disgusted over a shocking sin. I mean if you believe that, then really, where should it end? Should we also feel sympathy for a person who truly does take pleasure in killing innocent people (not merely accidentally, in the heat of the moment like You Know Who)? Should we feel sympathy for Hitler? I guess I'm hesitant to accept the "You're really just like Hitler deep down, search long enough in your heart and you'll find it!" idea. I don't know if it's a Reformed thing or what. (Full disclosure: I'm an Arminian.)

      In the end, it's kind of a fact that pedophilia IS a disease most people don't have. It's simply not true that every man has an inner pedophile/rapist/what have you. I see nothing wrong, practically, with putting things in "categories." Some men are sick in that way, some men aren't, and never will be. In the show, they keep saying "What about the reverend?" but one of the things I actually liked about that character was how straight-forwardly, uncomplicatedly GOOD he was, so that I never seriously suspected him at all. I found that refreshing in a culture that seems insistent *everyone* must have a dirty little secret. Newsflash: Some people ARE just boring good guys, and if our tell-all culture doesn't find that exciting... oh well.

      I would also be careful about using the word "brokenness" too vaguely. I think it's always clarifying to separate people who are "broken" in the sense of having committed some ghastly sin and people who are "broken" in the sense of having suffered some kind of tragedy. Sin doesn't equal suffering. Not that I think you're somehow confused on that point (!) but I've just noticed there's a common rhetorical tendency to, perhaps unintentionally, blur the lines by lumping both kinds of "brokenness" together.

      I did forget one other bright redemptive spot (SPOILERIFIC!) regarding DI Hardy. That scene where he tells the true story behind Sunbrook was one of the show's absolute best in my opinion. I love how the shallow reporters just don't know what to do with so much dignity and honor. My heart completely broke in two for Alec as I simultaneously felt my trust in him vindicated. From the moment he showed up, I thought, "Yeah. This is a good guy." And learning about the sacrifice he had made just about made me choke up. And those calls to his daughter... damn. Like with the lack of closure between Colman and the mother, I felt so sad that there was no closure with Hardy's family. I hear there's talk he won't be back, but I cared about that character so much that now I want that for him, almost like he's a real person! I saw some reviewers saying he was "one-note." Apparently several somebodies need to look up the word "nuanced" in the dictionary.


      Another consideration I'll throw out there is that there is a small but definite activist contingency for pedophilia out there. We've already got NAMBLA on this continent. I don't know if there's anything similar in Britain. There's also a subtler movement to encourage pedophiles not to feel ashamed of their desires, because otherwise they'll be too afraid to get the help they need. While I wouldn't say that Broadchurch is going as far as NAMBLA, it seems like they're trying to at least put a question mark next to pedophilia. DI Hardy's line "The world's more gray" seems like the moral of the entire show, and since pedophilia is the central theme, this would seem to indicate that pedophilia is complicated and murky.
      (To support this interpretation, You Know Who yells "If I can't understand it, how can I expect you to?") In the next few decades, I could definitely see a slow process for pedophilia acceptance mirroring what we've already seen with homosexuality. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that a show like this is the embryo or the seed of that.

      Ultimately I think Mark actually has it just about right: "You're not even worth that. I just pity you." But he's right in a harsh way that's kind of sickening to think about. Essentially, I see You Know Who as a thoroughly emasculated character from the beginning. The whole "Dad Mom" thing is, IMO, a deliberate set-up. His complete impotency is further symbolically emphasized by his wife's screaming and kicking him as he cowers on the ground. To me, it all fits together as an attempt to undermine masculinity in general. He's SO pathetic that like Mark says, there's so little there that's even worth hating. The writers almost seemed to take a kind of perverse pleasure in making him as weak-willed as possible next to the "strong female character" who is his wife. And she is an amazing character, don't get me wrong, it's just that I see "Freudian liberal wish fulfillment" written all over the exaggeratedly lop-sided contrast with her husband.

    4. Sorry it took me a while to reply – been pretty busy over the weekend.

      First, I agree with you that pedophilia is disgusting. I’m not arguing with that. What I was rather ashamed of was that I was disgusted, but I didn’t hate You Know Who, and I wanted to. I wanted him to be terrible in every way, I wanted him to be easy to hate—he wasn’t a stock villain, he was disgusting and that was too familiar for comfort. Pedophilia isn’t a disease, something that just strikes certain people without warning, it’s sin, it’s evil. It’s willful evil. Like most sins, it is selective of whom it tempts, as you point out, but I think it’s possible to trace a person’s descent into darkness. I thought Broadchurch did well in showing the slow, insidious, seemingly innocent starts of sin, even one as dark as pedophilia. Philanthropy is wonderful, but it can morph into self-righteousness. Brotherly love is good, right? But twist and shove it through our pinched, self-centered hearts and it can become homosexuality. Isn’t it a good thing to admire the innocent beauty of children? And yet we twist that into something terrible. You Know Who starts by entertaining these fantasies, and rationalizing them “I just wanted something of my own” “I was in love”, “romanticizing,” Hardy calls it. It’s made very clear that it’s romanticizing something very evil (I don’t think this is “normalizing” it)—his excuses are shown for what they are: pathetic. He is a pathetic character. Some other characters are able to reverse this trend. Mark, for instance, after indulging sinful fantasies (and acting on them), realizes his pettiness, turns and becomes the husband he should have been before.

      But ultimately, I don’t think Broadchurch is about pedophilia. It’s about the terror of not knowing people, and not knowing ourselves, especially the reality of sin. Pedophilia illustrates this particularly well, because it is something that often takes others completely by surprise, and it’s such a betrayal of innocent trust. The truth is we can’t really trust anyone. Being rather a Calvarminian, I can justify that in both ways – we have free will and are therefore prone to do anything (good or bad), and we’re all sinful, and therefore everything we do stems from the wickedness of our hearts. However, the genius of the show is that it doesn’t show us the problem without the solution. At the beginning, you have a sort of shallow, modern community that reminds me SO much of my town. But really, folks don’t know each other, they just know the façade. Ellie *is* Broadchurch in that sense, slowly coming to realize how much she had put her hope in human beings and vague notions of family and community. Alec, on the other end of the spectrum, has been betrayed so many times that he doesn’t trust anyone, and is cut off from the world in a sphere of loneliness, occasionally punctured by fumbling attempts at intimacy (with his daughter, and Becca). Finally, there is Paul, who has a hope not built on human beings at all, and who is therefore able to be much more gracious than Alec, *not* because he believes in humanity’s goodness like Ellie (he’s kind to Becca and Mark despite knowing their failings, and encourages forgiveness of You Know Who), but because he doesn’t depend on it.

    5. However, I think that You Know Who could have been more suspicious – the idea that all that time no one had a clue? (Your point about his marriage makes little sense, since it was really that sense of emasculation that gave him his motive, implausible as it was.) So I agree, however, it seems like most everyone that watched it immediately picked You Know Who as the killer, so part of my reaction there was that I hadn’t seen it coming. But I do think it all taps into that fear that someone who acts so normal (which I found unbelievable) could be so messed-up inside. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can understand it?”
      Speaking of which:

  4. You loved the character of the vicar? Really? Quite early in the series, I was convinced he was the murderer and probably a pedophile as well and the reason he had done it. He weedled his faux empathic way into the lives of the main characters in my view, ingratiating himself and trying to subtly point the finger at many of the others in turn. Creepy. I wouldn't trust him in a fit.

    1. You're sure you're not talking about the vicar from Gracepoint (also called Paul Coates)? He was legitimately creepy. Broadchurch's Paul Coates seemed to genuinely want to help. Seeing his attempts to aid a grieving family (that's kind of his job) as an evil ploy is a bit cynical, don't you think? Alec Hardy distrusts him in the same way, and Paul's answer to that suspicion is correct: "I didn't muscle in; people turned to me. People who wouldn't even normally think about religion. They asked me to speak; they asked me to listen. They needed me." He didn't force his attentions on Beth, but he did try to advise her (*after* her mother asked him to help); he also didn't volunteer to counsel the Latimers, but Mark asked him to.

      So with that in mind, I found him a refreshing change from the old-crotchety-ridiculous vicar trope you find so often in British stories.

  5. I have never seen Gracepoint. and I know it was the vicar in Broadchurch that I meant.

    However, I was wrong about him, he wasn't the murderer at all. I guess it's all in the eyes of the beholder.

    Was it even possible to guess the true villain in Broadchurch? It could have been anyone from the script writing and acting. I just felt the vicar was the most likely candidate, and once I thought that, everything else he did seemed to back up that view.

    But as I said, I was wrong. I'm often wrong! Either that or I'm clueless and just enjoy watching the drama unfold.

    1. Well, it's true that I highly suspect it wasn't him because the guy who directed me to the show mentioned the positive portrayal of Christianity.

      As for whodunit...well, almost everybody guessed Joe immediately (in Britain, they were betting on it, and he was everyone's number one choice). He had no reason to exist - the writer tended to direct suspicion away from him, and the whole subplot with creepy trailer park lady ("How could you not know?") pretty much sealed the deal. (Paul was cleared once he was given the obligatory dark secret in episode 7 and then the story moved on.) Now, I'll admit, I doubt I would've guessed Joe. I really liked the character before it was spoiled for me that he was the killer right after I finished episode 1. So maybe I'm not the best one to ask.

      It was less of a clues-lead-to-the-killer case and more a let's-second-guess-the-writer case. I'm not very good at the latter.

      But the vicar in Gracepoint really was all those things you mentioned. There was actually a scene where he was out in the woods looking for Tom and singing this hymn under this breath - out of TUNE. The guy was a serious creep.


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