Appellate Judge James A. Stewart has been discovering another picturesque British region he wants to avoid.
"I want to know if we're looking at coincidence or connection."—Vera Stanhope
Northumberland's got a lot of nice scenery, but it's also got bleak rows of identical houses. In both of these settings, murders abound—at least in the world of Vera, a series of mystery movies from Britain's ITV. DCI Vera Stanhope (Brenda Blethyn, Atonement) originated, as ITV detectives often do, from a pen, in this case of Ann Cleeves (Silent Voices originated with an actual novel).
Facts of the Case
Vera: Set 2 features four made-for-TV movies, each on its own disc:
• The Ghost Position—A police colleague of Vera's jumps from a balcony to his death in the wake of a petrol-bombing at his home. Vera looks into protests and her colleague's broken marriage.
• Silent Voices—The drowning victim was an excellent swimmer. The sensational case she oversaw as a social worker also involved a drowning. This is all going on just as Vera has taken up swimming for her health.
• Sandancers—The vomit at the scene wasn't from the deceased. It's a hint that the apparent suicide of an Afghanistan vet might be murder. Vera clashes with a commander, but gets help from a military investigator.
• A Certain Samaritan—Vera figures out that a man who turned up dead in Portsmouth fell off a bridge in her territory. What she'd like to know is what the dead man's mother (Phyllis Logan, Downton Abbey) is trying to hide.
Vera Stanhope's screwed-up life story is told in shorthand: the milk in her fridge is bad, her table is covered with pizza flyers, she has a touch of angina, and she doesn't even know how to dress for a child's first communion—or how to get to the church on time. Brenda Blethyn delivers her lines with a Northumberland accent that sounds, to me at least, like Frances McDormand in Fargo.
Once you get through the initial signs of discombobulation, Blethyn's performance gives you a rooting interest in Vera. You might sympathize as she picks an unlikely swimming spot—a posh spa—only to have an investigation lead there, or as she tries not to think about her late father's "other woman." Vera comes across as a generally sad person, enough so that when she smiles, you might feel joy for her, too.
Her partner, DS Joe Ashworth (David Leon, These Foolish Things), has a family life, with a wife who's concerned about his diet and a daughter. He rides Vera about her health, but provides a caring ear when she has problems. It turns out that he and his family also look up to Vera; both Joe and Vera are surprised when his wife Celine actually takes Vera's advice on a personal matter.
Presented in standard definition 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, Vera has a knack for interesting intercuts. For example, the scene of a woman being held underwater in Silent Voices is juxtaposed with Vera's struggles in a pool session. It also has a knack for showing off Northumberland's beautiful scenery: a car rides through lush greenery or Vera interviews a suspect by the water. It does so with a recent, digital-quality picture that doesn't disappoint. The Dolby 2.0 Stereo mix is par for the course with Acorn's Brit TV releases and performs admirably. There are English SDH subtitles, for those who are challenged by the accents, but there are no extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The combination of downbeat cases and Vera's lonely, sad life adds up to a weariness you've seen before. Cases where prime suspects turn up dead themselves also lead to a familiar feeling.
I found Vera occasionally heavy, but well-made. If you're already a Brenda Blethyn fan, you'll enjoy Vera, which rests a lot on her shoulders. If you're a British mystery fan, you'll want to check it out, but you might look for a sample movie at Acorn's site first.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
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