We could talk for days and still not land on the reason why a fairly pedestrian, certainly predictable and too-long-by-a-third contemporary legal thriller just looks and feels so much better when it’s British. Who can explain this? Surely it involves at least a subliminal case of Anglophilia, causing a viewer to overlook the same flaws (in plot, premise, acting, editing) that we see in the courts-and-crime fare offered up by American cable networks like USA and TNT. If Franklin & Bash & Rizzoli & Isles & all the rest were all Brits, we might pay more attention to them.
Exhibit A: “The Escape Artist.” an absorbingly stylish, two-part TV movie from BBC that will get American airing this month on most PBS stations (under the “Masterpiece Mystery!” rubric). In the Washington market, it’s been overlooked by WETA, but it is airing on Maryland Public Television . . . at 4 in the morning. God save the DVR.
“The Escape Artist” stars David Tennant, the trip-wired Scottish actor known to one set of viewers as a former Doctor Who and to another set of viewers as the deeply morose detective sergeant of last year’s grippingly good “Broadchurch.”(Which was such a success that Fox hired Tennant to reprise the role in an Americanized remake this fall called “Gracepoint.”)
Here, Tennant plays Will Burton, a London defense attorney who relishes his reputation for never having lost a case. Everyone agrees he’s “destined for silk” (some sort of royal honor among the wig-wearing barrister set). At home, he has a wife (Ashley Jensen) and son (Gus Barry) who understand that his high-pressure job keeps him preoccupied. For work-life balance, the Burtons frequently leave their stunningly modern city apartment to spend weekends at their still-more-enviable country house.
All this self-satisfaction cannot stand. Against his better instincts, Will agrees to represent Liam Foyle (Toby Kebbell), an antisocial man who lives in an apartment with a lot of pet birds. Seeing an easy loophole in the prosecution’s case, Will quickly brings the case to a close and Liam walks free.
“The Escape Artist,” written by David Wolstencroft (“MI-5”), is arranged around a well-trod conundrum in both real-life legal practice and fictional TV dramas, in which defense attorneys are depicted as master compartmentalizers who are able to set aside their hunch that a client is guilty in order to represent his best interests. In most movies and TV shows like this, the defense attorney usually has a dark, jaggedy-edgy day of reckoning coming.
Which is precisely what Will gets. Without detailing the plot any further, it isn’t long before his life is grievously upended in the aftermath of the Foyle case, leaving him on the other side of the equation.
Tennant is once again terrific at juggling a lot of emotions from one moment to the next. The supporting cast is also sufficiently fine, including a steely performance from Sophie Okonedo (“Hotel Rwanda”) as a barrister whose rivalry with Will goes back to law school and who finds herself defending Foyle on a new murder charge. As Foyle, Kebbell is a bit too unhinged, working from a composite sketch of unsavory courtroom defendants seen in countless movies.
Plodding on too far, “The Escape Artist” becomes a revenge story. And yet, for the ineffably eurocentric reasons I was describing earlier, you keep watching and waiting for the surprise. When it becomes underwhelming, you can easily fall back on “The Escape Artist’s” bland but inviting elegance.
Masterpiece Mystery!: The Escape Artist (two parts; 90 minutes each) begins Sunday at 9 p.m. on many PBS stations. WETA does not currently have it scheduled; MPT will air Part 1 on Monday, June 16, at 4 a.m. and Part 2 on June 23 at 4 a.m.