Acorn Media // 2000 // 146 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart // December 9th, 2010
"Do I look like a murderer? Well, yes, I suppose I do in this picture."
In Doc Martin, Martin Clunes has shown a gift for making an unlikable character compelling. Before he started saving lives in Cornwall on screen, Clunes put that gift to a greater test as a rogue accused of murder in Dirty Tricks. It's based on a novel by Michael Dibdin, who, interestingly, was once a language teacher himself.
"Is this the face of a murderer?" A tabloid asks that question with a mug shot of Our Hero (Martin Clunes). Our Hero says no, and starts to explain, in flashbacks with a lot of narrative comments:
Two years earlier, he was a struggling language teacher, invited to a party at the home of the language school's accountant. At dinner, Karen, the accountant's lovely wife, played footsie with him under the table. That led to making out in the bathroom. That led to an affair and, after the death of her husband, marriage. Now she's dead, and Our Hero's looking for a way to dodge a murder rap.
Is Our Hero a murderer? I guess not, although the death of Karen's husband is filmed with an ambiguity that might make you wonder about him -- or Karen. It's enough to keep you guessing during the events to follow, giving Dirty Tricks a nervous energy that'll make you keep watching. I polished off both parts of the two-part miniseries in an evening.
Even without that nervous energy, Martin Clunes does his part to make Our Hero (that's how the unnamed protagonist is listed in the credits) watchable. You know he's a bit of a rogue right away as he peeks at a wine label he's supposed to be guessing to show off his knowledge of the grape. Clunes lets the nastiness come out gradually until you're not really surprised that he's tormenting his drunken wife, who is pregnant by another man, even as he contemplates an affair with a beautiful widow. Even so, he tells his story with a roguish charm that can elicit interest, if not sympathy. Ultimately, he turns out to be a sort of opposite of Doc Martin; instead of turning out to be a good guy underneath an awkward, unpleasant exterior, Our Hero turns out to be a moral cesspool underneath a charming surface.
The first part of Dirty Tricks lets Clunes build the character of the roguish antihero; the second part tears him down, as he takes drastic, farcical action. Audiences will soon anticipate his downfall as Our Hero deals with the prodding of a police detective (James Bolam, The Beiderbecke Connection).
There's nothing spectacular about the presentation, but the video looks good and the jaunty score, perfect for a comic thriller, comes across well. There's a text bio of the late Michael Dibdin, who created Italian detective Aurelio Zen.
The success of Dirty Tricks pretty much rests on Martin Clunes' shoulders. The rest of the cast, including character actor James Bolam, are just chess pieces in Clunes' tour-de-force. If you don't like Clunes -- and his performances are an acquired taste -- you won't like Dirty Tricks.
Fans of Doc Martin should check this one out. The thriller gets a bit predictable toward the end, but Martin Clunes makes his onscreen wickedness something you've got to see.
Not guilty, but a definite pleasure.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 146 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Not Rated