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Quirke

(BBC; UK DVD: 1 Mar 2014)

Most crime television shows that have been filmed in Dublin in recent years are consumed with blood and violence. The contemporary gangster series Love/Hate and Ripper Street, set in Whitechapel six months after the notorious killings of Jack the Ripper, are two of these predominant examples. It’s sensible to believe that the latest BBC production filmed in Ireland’s capital city, Quirke, was going to follow suite in showcasing gore and corruption. Instead, the ‘50s era crime drama focuses more on the life of our protagonist hero, Quirke, rather than the murder cases he throws himself into.


Based on the first three novels in the series of the same name by John Banville (written under the pseudonym Benjamin Black), the TV miniseries follows Quirke, the chief pathologist of the Dublin city morgue. Dublin born Gabriel Byrne portrays the enigmatic alcoholic who has to confront family issues as well as Irish ideologies when he deploys his sleuthing skills.


Each of the three episodes last for an hour and a half, making it an ideal duration for us to feel connected to the central characters. In comparison to other crime dramas, the series is unique by not motivating the storyline through discovering the identity of the murderer. Usually in an hour and a half long crime episode, the story would intentionally include many twists and turns to surprise the audience. Whereas on many occasions during Quirke, it becomes easy to forget that a murder has occurred.


Instead Quirke spends time delving into the personal life of the pathologist himself or the people who have influenced him, an interesting feature that has been adapted successfully by influential Welsh screenwriter Andrew Davies (Bridget Jones, House of Cards). An even more peculiar element is that a lot of screen time is given to characters who only appear in one episode, so that we uncover more about their personality. They are not represented as solely a lifeless victim, if you will, but as a well-round character. 


The first few scenes of episode one, “Christine Falls”, introduces us to the idea that Quirke and his brother-in-law Malachy Griffin (Nick Dunning) suffer from a diabolical relationship. They appear reserved towards each other in both their actions and their words. This distance is heightened when Quirke enters the morgue to find Malachy tampering with a corpse. The next morning he discovers that the purpose of Malachy’s visit was to hide the cause of death. When he goes on the hunt to realise why Malachy interfered with the body, Quirke finds himself out of his depth and surrounded by those in higher power.


Malachy’s jealousy towards Quirke is one of the main reasons why their relationship is broken. The doctor’s wife, Sarah, is affectionate towards Quirke and his daughter Phoebe is obsessed with her uncle, explaining that she will move to Boston on the condition that Quirke joins her. It’s clear that “Christine Falls” dissects the negatives of holding secrets within a family.


Quirke is the lone-wolf who has been affected by the events of his past and so it makes sense that his actions within the series are motivated both because of the cases he is drawn into and because of the issues surrounding his personal life. This is evident when understanding why he agrees to move with Phoebe to Boston. Catholicism, too, is a major ‘character’ in this episode.


The elegant titles of the second and third episodes “The Silver Swan” and “Elegy for April” reflect the glamorous perception of the series as a whole. Like “Christine Falls”, these final two parts offer a rare murder storyline alongside Quirke’s personal endeavours.


The series maintains a state of realism. Our protagonist is a pathologist, not a detective, so it isn’t his responsibility to chase after criminals. That is why, in the majority of circumstances, he’s forced into these cases because it may hold connections with his family, or he has to aid Inspector Hackett (Stanley Townsend) with discovering what caused the victims’ death.


With its cobbled streets and dark costumes, the scenes hold atmospheric mystery, although this is not displayed through violence and gore. Despite conveying some challenging themes like alcoholism and a fighting incident, the series makes sure that audiences don’t feel too much discomfort when watching unpleasant scenes unfold. The grit of the crime itself is washed over. The series is more interested in conveying an idolised elite lifestyle, rather than analysing working-class citizens.


The historical period and the setting is exceptionally mastered through visuals. Both the hair and the costumes of characters represent this era in time and some of the women look like they have just graced the misty streets of a film noir. Colour is also a vital visual effect within Quirke. The dark and gloomy shades of grey seem to haunt the set. Yet there are crucial bursts of colour, particularly represented in Sarah’s flaming orange coat. This allows Sarah to stand out in every outside scene where extras are shrouded in black outfits, highlighting that she is the object of Quirke’s desire.


The series also dwells upon Phoebe. This dark-haired beauty is an interesting character; she’s continuously called a ‘rebel by her parents, yet this troublesome aspect of personality is kept from our screens so we perceive her as someone both inexperienced and innocent.


Quirke is not a sinister or thrilling watch, nor is it a light-hearted series. Rather, i’s a more nuanced and mature crime drama.


There were no extras with this DVD.

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Danielle Shields writes arts and culture news and reviews for PopMatters, White Coffee Magazine, The National Student and Muso's Guide.


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