HBO // 1991 // 208 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // January 19th, 2004
"A close friend, a man whom I respected highly, died right there. And now, Inspector, is not the time to thrust your women's rights down my throat." -- DCS Kernan (John Benfield) to DCI Tennison (Helen Mirren)
When a London prostitute named Della Mornay is brutally murdered, the police care more about concealing the names in her little black book than solving the crime. Their prime suspect is one George Marlow (John Bowe), whose blood type matches the crime scene. Open and shut.
At least, it all looks that way, until the lead detective on the case, John
Shefford (John Forgeham), drops dead of a heart attack. Sick of pushing papers
and looking for a hot case to hang her promotion on, Detective Chief Inspector
Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren) is ready to step in. But Scotland Yard in 1991 is
still very much a boys' club, and Tennison is the first female DCI ever to take
on a murder case. The detectives already gathering a case against Marlow do not
want Tennison stepping in where she is not welcome, even to the point of hiding
evidence in hopes of humiliating her. Her boyfriend (Tom Wilkinson) bristles at
the thought of being overshadowed by Tennison's devotion to her job over him.
Certainly, the discovery of a second body and a police cover-up designed to
protect the sordid secrets of DCI Shefford only complicate matters. And George
Marlow is a slippery foe, more than willing to take advantage of the turmoil
among the detectives. He thinks Tennison is weak, that she can be beaten.
He is very wrong.
Perhaps one of the most underrated actresses working today is Helen Mirren. Not an A-list star, no longer young and pretty, she has always pushed furiously against the Hollywood stereotype that aging actresses should fade from sight. From her risky performance in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover to her critical character work in films like Gosford Park and The Madness of King George (both of which earned her Oscar nominations), Mirren has steadfastly refused to go gently. In this light, there are few parts more tailor-made for a performer than DCI Jane Tennison is for Helen Mirren, a role which earned her four Emmy nominations and one Emmy win (for the fourth installment, in which she revisits the Marlow case to trap a copycat killer). Who else could convey the icy determination of a detective who must catch a serial killer while fighting her own team? And how much of that professional ferocity is merely a cover for her own uncertainty, her own sense that maybe the bad guys will win?
Writer Lynda La Plante and Helen Mirren have shaped the Prime Suspect series into one of the most welcome British imports to PBS in recent years. Racism, the drug war, child prostitution -- this police procedural, structured like multi-part television novels, never shrinks from the dark side of human nature. And Tennison is never portrayed as a superhero, or even much of a role model. Perhaps her anger is justified by the fact that the men around her really do try to shove her in the corner, but she still seems pushy and remote. Tennison smokes too much, frets over her love life, and nitpicks the work of her junior officers. She is stubborn to the point of even obsessing over false leads just because others oppose her judgment. But she is right far more often than she is wrong. If she were a man, the team would envy the size of her balls. Instead, they resent her and try to block her efforts to solve the case, angry that she might get credit. One of the lead detectives on the case, the oily Detective Sergeant Otley (Tom Bell), who believes Tennison stole the Marlow case over his best friend's dead body, leads a near-revolt in the squad room and constantly conspires against her.
The battle of wits between Tennison and her staff, Tennison and Marlow, and even Tennison with herself elevate Prime Suspect 1 far beyond the usual routine police procedural. Indeed, it runs for four episodes, a little over 200 minutes spread over two discs, and weaves with all the intricacy of a fine hard-boiled crime novel. However, as excellent a series as Prime Suspect is, HBO Video has not improved any on the previous Anchor Bay release of this DVD. There are no extras, and the picture (admittedly done on a BBC budget) is riddled with grain, nicks, and scratches.
Still, few crime dramas on American television have approached their subject with the low-key realism that Prime Suspect seems to handle so effortlessly. And much of that success can be credited to the smoldering energy of Helen Mirren. I always look forward to each new entry in this series (as of this writing, the sixth installment, about a murder with ties to a Bosnian war criminal, has yet to run in America). But for those uninitiated into the mysteries of DCI Jane Tennison, start with Prime Suspect 1 and discover why no criminal has a hope of besting the toughest detective on television.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 208 Minutes
Release Year: 1991
MPAA Rating: Not Rated