As far as broadcasters are concerned, commercial success begets commercial success, therefore it comes as little surprise that the BBC, no doubt bolstered by the BAFTA triumph of the first series of Criminal Justice, ensured the programme returned recently for another five-part run, this time with new characters but once again following the same format: the progress of a person subjected to the mechanisms of the British judicial system.
The scenario this time involves a wealthy couple, Joe and Juliet Miller (Matthew Macfadyen and Maxine Peake), and their 13-year-old daughter Ella (Alice Sykes). Joe, a successful barrister, arrives home victorious from court one evening to find Juliet, a stay-at-home mother, twitchy, solemn, and evasive to questions regarding her whereabouts earlier that day. After Joe conducts some covert investigation – which instigates several suspenseful scenes that are ramped up to Hitchcockian proportions – he surmises that Juliet is having an affair with their family doctor.
That night, troubled but tight-lipped regarding his suspicions, Joe attempts to initiate sex with Juliet, persevering until she relents. Seemingly traumatised, she excuses herself and eventually returns with a concealed kitchen knife, finally stabbing Joe in the ribs while he has forceful sex with her. Juliet flees, and Joe is rushed to intensive care after Ella discovers him, prostrate and bleeding.
Soon afterwards, a stupefied Juliet appears at the hospital and is taken into custody for questioning. The climax of the first episode sees her charged with attempted murder, driven to the end of her tether, we assume, by a lack of love for her husband and the emotional fragility wrought by her participation in a secret affair. It would appear to be an open-and-shut case, but Joe’s passive/aggressive sexual behaviour, and Juliet’s strange timidity in the company of her seemingly charming husband, may suggest otherwise.
Peter Moffat’s excellent script is masterful in the way it toys with both our initial preconceptions and our sympathies. In addition to examining gradations of culpability in the face of mitigating circumstances, it also meticulously examines the long, arduous process of a criminal investigation and subsequent trial, all the time keeping focus on the terrible domestic repercussions one moment of criminal insanity can induce. Throughout the entire series it is clear that Moffat is keenly concerned with the smallest details of the legal process, no doubt given authenticity here due to his former career as a lawyer.
In bringing such rigorous and complex writing to the screen, Yann Demange’s direction (with Marc Jobst taking the reigns with equal command for the final two episodes) is ambitious and impressive. In the opening episode, the initial shots that introduce both Juliet and Joe cleverly symbolise the characteristics each of them will come to embody. In Juliet’s case frail and damaged, and in Joe’s case, a focus on the element of façade inherent in his career, which, we will learn, extends to his private life.
For example, the fraught Juliet is first shown, pre-credits, in a montage of random, tender close-ups: hands; feet; the hint of a profile behind delicate strands of hair. This sequence not only implies a fragmented, fractured and incomplete personality, but also, as we’ll see, visually presages the crux of her problem throughout the series: her reluctance to tell the whole story, to convey the complete picture. Equally, Joe’s first scene alone shows him in the chambers following a court victory, and we watch as he carefully removes the garb of the judiciary.
Off come the gown and the wig (talcum-powdered and returned to its monogrammed box), and we realise this is a man whose life is about rituals, perception, control and performance, and, it transpires, the creation of a persona that masks, to the outside world, an unpalatable truth or two. Tellingly, during an opening court scene, Joe removes his wig, and holding it up to the jury, proclaims “these wigs make all us barristers alike”, thus essentially confirming the uniform respect that the homogeneous costume affords him.
These early directorial and screenplay flourishes - giving some indication to the main characters’ troubled personas - seem further prescient when revelations regarding Juliet’s domestic life come to light during the trial. Equally, when we later learn some of the unsavoury facts about the upstanding Joe, his supporters balk at the idea he could be capable of such things. And as the real truth begins to seep into the narrative, Moffat forces us to re-evaluate everything we’ve already seen, with previously unknown facts revealed carefully, slowly and beautifully, joining the tapestry of the whole story and giving it new-found dimensions.
Both directors also nurture admirable performances from the cast. Peake, as Juliet, delivers a heartbreaking, quiet and subtle study of an incarcerated person slowly regressing away from the familial, and society in general. Looking gaunt and haunted throughout, it’s a marvel when one considers how different she appeared several years ago in her career-defining role as the loud and cheeky peroxide-haired Veronica in Channel Four’s Shameless. Macfadyen is also excellent as the confident, articulate barrister who exudes a whiff of suppressed menace.
Within the supporting cast, Sophie Okonedo, as Juliet’s spunky solicitor Jack Woolf, is terrific, managing to eschew the mannered and stuffy style of performance that can occasionally dog British legal drama. Also notable is the always excellent Denis Lawson as the lead investigating officer Detective Chief Inspector Bill Faber, who functions as a welcome and thorough moral arbiter, despite one major procedural lapse of judgement later in the series.
Visually, things look suitably sombre. During early episodes, Tat Radcliffe’s cinematography - utilising a muted colour palette - makes great use of large windows and other cold, reflective surfaces, enhancing the icy atmosphere that permeates the Miller house and seems to mirror Juliet’s despair. In later episodes, during the trial and prison sequences, cutaway time-lapse shots of beautiful deep-hued skies appear to signify the tantalisingly close possibility of flight and freedom, far away from the claustrophobia of Juliet’s confinement.
Overall, Criminal Justice II is bleak and graphic (some of the blood-spattered prison scenes will curl your toes), and the occasional attempts at humour seem incongruous to the melancholic tone. As in the first series, Moffat portrays the legal and penal systems as frequently uncompassionate monoliths of bureaucracy, disinterested in the finer details of a case and happy to move things along for a quick conviction, regardless of any ambiguous motives or the possibility of provocation. However, he also constantly asserts that nothing is simple and clear-cut. “The truth is grey”, as one character says.
In this respect, perhaps the most relevant line of dialogue in the series is delivered by one of the investigating police officers, Detective Inspector Sexton (Steven Mackintosh). Sexton, Faber and Joe’s legal clerk Saul are discussing details of the case. The probing Faber, frustrated by Saul’s blind loyalty to Joe and his lack of lateral thinking, walks out, leaving the remaining pair to share the silence.
“My boss”, Sexton finally says to Saul, “is interested in context”.
And so, it seems, is Criminal Justice II’s screenwriter Peter Moffat.
DVD extras are relatively basic, consisting of a picture gallery, cast filmographies, and five interesting episode-by-episode interviews with screenwriter Moffat, during which he discusses key aspects of his script.