Where were you on the night of April 18, 2004? If you were not at home watching Jane Tennison on television, then Judge Mike Pinsky says you had better pick up her latest case on DVD.
Our reviews of Prime Suspect 1 (published January 19th, 2004), Prime Suspect 2 And 3 (published June 1st, 2004), Prime Suspect 4 And 5 (published June 7th, 2004), and Prime Suspect: Complete Collection (published August 19th, 2010) are also available.
"Jane Tennison can be bloody difficult, but she'd never demand anything from one of us that she wouldn't ask of herself."—DCI Simon Finch (Ben Miles)
Like a fine single-malt scotch, Jane Tennison becomes richer and more deeply textured with age. After a seven-year hiatus, Helen Mirren is back as the toughest female cop in the London Metropolitan Police. But Superintendent Tennison has hardly mellowed with the years. At 54 years old, 30 years into her police career, Jane is feeling the pressure to retire. She can barely pass her physical, she is trying to quit smoking yet again, and she is stressed out from the unrelenting workload.
We all know by now that Jane's private life is, well, nearly non-existent. Instead, she fills her time with running London's homicide unit, juggling two dozen murder investigations, and watching her junior officers jockeying for the best positions to dance on her eventual corpse. We also know that Jane is not a people person. She is domineering, prone to tactless remarks, and often self-centered. But when crime crosses her path, she will sacrifice everything to see that justice is done.
Isn't it great to have her back?
Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness, as with all installments in the series, is propelled by a complex performance by Mirren. But after the fireworks of Tennison's last television case (where she tangled with The Street, her most flamboyant and dangerous adversary), writer Peter Berry has crafted for Mirren a more intimate and emotional story. Two Muslim women are murdered, possible witnesses to a Bosnian massacre a decade earlier. The police quickly latch onto a suspect: a former paramilitary goon (Velibor Topic). But shady dealings are, as usual, going on behind the scenes. Tennison soon suspects that the killer is connected to a wider conspiracy to hide the truth about an escaped war criminal (Oleg Menshikov). And, as is usually the case in the Prime Suspect series, the conspiracy reaches right up above Jane's head. The series has always been at its best when it anchors its hard-boiled police work with a sociological subtext. In this case, the tale begins as if we are going to examine illegal immigration, but quickly steers toward a more global question: What are the consequences of war? Ethnic cleansing, torture, organized crime—the picture we get of Bosnia in the 1990s is not a pretty one, but Jane Tennison has never been a stranger to violence.
While the villain in this tale is slickly seductive, Menshikov's Milan Lukic is not as sharp a foil for Tennison as The Street was. Of course, Jane is usually her own worst enemy. The standard formula for a Prime Suspect case is: Jane pushes her way onto a case, alienates most of her staff before bringing them grudgingly back to her side, makes a dreadful and fatal miscalculation midway through that nearly bungles the case, then pulls it all back together to catch the bad guy. This time out, the script focuses less on the cat-and-mouse game between Tennison and her prime suspect, and more on the emotional weight crushing the aging detective: her doggedness in pursuing the case, her horror at the atrocities of the Bosnian War, and more about her family than we have ever learned before.
This sixth installment, while more cerebral and political than the previous entry, may be the best directed of the series. Tom Hooper moves away from the gritty look of earlier Tennison tales for an almost surreal color palette and striking use of framing, making the most of his London locations. This gives the story more visual panache than usual. HBO Video also includes a supplemental feature this time. Helen Mirren (who oddly claims that Tennison "is not really ambitious"), her supporting cast, and crew talk about the production. But why is this featurette in anamorphic widescreen, and the actual feature in full frame?
Still, if we can forgive Jane Tennison her mistakes in the service of a higher cause, we can cut HBO a little slack. It is worth it just to see Jane back in action. Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness will hopefully not be the last we see of the best detective on television today, regardless of age or gender.
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