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Murderland

(US DVD: 2 Nov 2010)

The story of a murder of the mother of a young girl, Murderland follows the case from different points of view to create a full picture of the crime. The three-part miniseries stars Robbie Coltrane as the lead detective, Douglas Hain in investigating the murder of Sally (Lucy Cohu), a mother and prostitute whose mysterious death becomes an obsession, referred to as her falling into ”murderland”, for her young daughter, Carrie (Bel Powley).


As the series begins, Carrie is a young teenager with an innocent opinion of her mother. This is called into question once she begins to understand the strange and secretive events surrounding her mother’s death.  Told from her perspective, the first part of Murderland offers a glimpse into her first reactions and suspicions about her mother’s murder. 


Carrie and DI Hain form an instant bond that stems from her complete trust in him and his protectiveness over her. Their shared interest in finding the cause of Sally’s murder, brings them close very quickly, but there are secrets that color their interactions. Powley is quite effective in showing Carrie’s shift from the early scenes with her mother – carefree, but also with the typical dynamic between a parent and child – to the later sobering and life-changing revelations she learns about.


The second part of the series focuses on DI Hain’s point of view, a sharp contrast to the previous younger, more naive viewpoint. Coltrane shines in both professional and personal mode. He is completely invested in solving Sally’s murder and his intentions are both straightforward and somewhat mysterious. In discovering more about Hain’s connection to Sally and Carrie, Murderland strives to go beyond a strict procedural. Rather, it’s just as interested, if not moreso, in shedding light on and understanding these characters beyond serving the plot. 


The final part of Murderland shows a grown-up Carrie, now wanting to be called Carol (Amanda Hale), as she reopens her personal investigation into Sally’s murder and draws DI Hain back in, as well. The more adult tone of this third part is very fitting in addressing the anger, guilt, and frustration of the two main characters. They have both had years to go over the details and inconsistencies of the crime and they are haunted by the still unsolved murder. 


Carol goes so far as to run out on her wedding because she can’t shake the shadow of her mother’s death. The unresolved nature of the murder keeps them both in each other’s orbits, despite the number of years that have passed. There are suspicions and shifts between mistrust and wanting to trust each other, but they work together to find out what really happened to Sally. 


Carol’s morbid interest in her mother, particularly as it relates to her life as a prostitute, makes for some of the more murky, uncomfortable, and surprising moments of the miniseries. Hale is especially good in showing the level of detachment she has had to employ throughout the years when it comes to facing the real feelings associated with her mother’s death. It’s a darker look into Carol’s mind than had been shown previously and in turn, makes for a deeper understanding of the character even as she is just starting to understand herself.


Throughout the miniseries, both Hain and Carol must contend with the procedures and bureaucracy of the police and child services departments. Frequently at odds with the both divisions, they use their distrust of those in charge to lean on one another. In addition, the other prostitutes that Sally worked with also offer a larger picture of her, as well as bring more doubt and suspicion into their investigation.


While the miniseries does have its weaknesses, namely as it applies to the suspense and in the anticipation of solving the crime, its strengths outweigh them. With the amount of procedurals that saturate television, it’s difficult to truly be shocked by the revelations of a murder mystery anymore. However, the plot is well-paced and breaking it up into the three points of view offers more than the typical crime show approach. There’s also a seriousness and bleakness to the way it’s told, adding to its effectiveness.


In the end, Murderland offers up a complete story that is as much about solving a crime as it is a detailed character study of those most affected by the crime. Again, here is where the actors bring an emotional weight to their performances, making the viewer as interested in Hain and Carol finding closure, as in who killed Sally. The two are inextricably linked and the careful way in which the story is woven, puts Murderland a cut above a standard murder story.

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J.M. Suarez has been a contributing writer at PopMatters since 2008. She's happy to talk about TV any time, any place. Really.


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