Prime Suspect (1991)

Genres - Mystery  |   Sub-Genres - Police Detective Film  |   Run Time - 200 min.  |   Countries - United Kingdom   |  
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Review by Brian J. Dillard

Although its occasional chunks of undigested feminist rhetoric can seem a little dated, the first installment in the BBC's long-running Prime Suspect franchise remains one of the most satisfying on a police-procedural level. Though the story focuses on a serial killer who preys on prostitutes, screenwriter and series creator Lynda La Plante's script eschews Silence of the Lambs theatrics in favor of gumshoe grit, infrequent small victories, and frustrating dead ends. The storytelling may be no truer to the actual mechanics of detective work, but its workaday drabness seems far more convincing than the glossy, quip-filled 45-minute mysteries of Law & Order -- the closest analogue to Prime Suspect on this side of the Atlantic. Helen Mirren ascended to global stardom on the strength of this series, and it's not hard to see why. She spends Prime Suspect 1 mapping out her character's essential strengths and deep personal flaws with tiny behavioral details and occasional grandstanding speeches. The inaugural series focuses more deeply on Jane Tennison's personal life than later editions, though Tom Wilkinson's boyfriend character comes off as little more than a plot device. The finer performances -- and not coincidentally the best-written characters -- spring from the mystery at hand and from the all-too-human police force that must solve it. Zoe Wanamaker is particularly fine as the common-law wife of the titular prime suspect, but really, the performances are all of a similarly high caliber. Television, especially crime television, doesn't get much better.