[16 September 2013]
Returning to PBS after a three year hiatus, Foyle’s War this time transports its audience to a somber, introspective Britain, victorious in war but not yet sure of the quality of its peace. The latest series leaves the thoughtful Sam Milner (Anthony Howell) to his thriving police career on England’s south coast and sends Detective Chief Superintendent Foyle (Michael Kitchen) to the esoteric world of MI5. Foyle’s change in station, however, has little effect on his memorably entertaining and convincing partnership with the police driver Sam (Honeysuckle Weeks).
Their continued collaboration makes thematic sense. Despite Britain’s meritocratic aspirations, patronage still counts in 1946, even as the circle of those with power to dispense it has widened. For younger people like Sam, who emerged from war disconnected from the past and unsure of the present, links to the newly powerful, like Foyle, were critical.
It is a bit artificial that Sam just happens to work for one of Foyle’s main suspects in the season’s premiere and she’s not exactly integrated into the MI5 hierarchy. That said, Sam’s very presence does allow for a deeper portrayal of day-to-day post-war Britain. Her husband, Adam (Daniel Weyman), is now an aspiring Labour politician, battling for housing and jobs, and hard put to explain the Labour government’s intensified rationing to his irritated future constituents. Sam and Adam live in a prefab, Britain’s surprisingly sturdy and long-lived solution to the country’s post-war crisis, where their earnest idealism flourishes, amid gossipy encounters and exemplary work by the production’s wardrobe department.
The new season’s major triumph is its recreation of a shattered Britain struggling to work out exactly what it had “won” through six years of war and to adjust to the realities of an emerging cold war, in which moral absolutes had no place. Highly placed former Nazis turned into well-protected assets, while erstwhile Russian allies arouse suspicion and risk incarceration. As Christopher Foyle spends more and more time in MI5, he realizes the agency’s operations echo the ambiguities of the geopolitical scene. The watchers are watched and the investigators investigated, as wartime concepts of loyalty and disloyalty are dismantled, with nothing to take their place. The browns, blues, and greys of the series’ palette, especially in its indoor scenes, accentuate the murkiness of daily political decisions, without ever tipping over into stylistic overkill.
Throughout, writer Anthony Horowitz uses telling details to allude to broader concerns. In Episode Two, a crucial clue arises from a witty play on the MI5 secretarial pool’s craze for “coupon busters,” multi-style shoes with detachable heels and attachable bows. In graver counterpoint, he highlights the plight of the displaced persons from Germany and Eastern Europe, who found themselves in Britain at the end of the war. They had no right to stay in Britain, but in the redrawing of Europe’s boundaries and the aftermath of the Holocaust, found no safe refuge anywhere else. He also hints at the transformation in government priorities and powers wrought by the war. He catches the initial canonization of national science, the source of the atom bomb that ended finally ended World War II and found its apogee in Harold Wilson’s 1960s threnody to the “white heat of this revolution.” And he traces how wartime installations targeted against the Nazis morphed into mysterious research establishments, in, but not part of, their local communities.
With so much atmosphere, the ingenuity of the investigations on which Foyle embarks arrives as a very pleasant surprise, especially after the lackluster mysteries of the penultimate season. In his dedication to finding of those responsible for murder and his empathy for those who bear the collateral damage of violent death, Foyle structures a personal morality that defies the chaos that surrounds him. As always, Michael Kitchen is terrific. Horowitz has pared his lines to the minimum, and both directors for this season gift Kitchen space to evoke complex states of mind, and often uncompromising judgments, via movement, gesture, and expression. Even the actors in the smallest roles are three-dimensional, a rich tribute to Britain’s theatrical talent. If these are, as Horowitz claims, the last episodes of Foyle he writes, both he and his longtime actor-collaborators are bowing out on a very high note indeed.