REVIEW: Gracepoint Episode 1 - "We Will Catch Whoever Did This"

When Gracepoint, the American remake of the much applauded UK murder mystery Broadchurch was announced it was too much incredulity and puzzlement. ‘Why remake perfection?’, was the cry, and, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!’ But FOX TV persisted in the project and, not only that, they brought in original series creator Chris Chibnall, directors James Strong and Euros Lyn and, most significantly of all, leading man David Tennant. So, would the remake be a pale facsimile of the original? Or would the series be jazzed up for an American audience with guns and car chases galore? The answer, thankfully, appears to be neither. And even though episode one is, admittedly, pretty much a straight remake of the Broadchurch opener there are already differences enough to pique the interest. Couple that with the stunningly rugged scenery, beautiful cinematography and a haunting soundtrack and there’s enough to make even the most devoted fans of the original curious enough to want to keep watching.

Gracepoint is very much an ensemble production. Although the action is led by the detective team, the series is populated by a richly realised cast of characters. Very often the storytelling lingers upon them and their reactions to the events befalling them to an extent that is unusual in a crime drama, particularly in the focus on the overwhelming grief experienced by the victim's family. The series opens on a perfectly normal summer’s morning in a perfectly ordinary, insignificant coastal town in California where the residents all know each other by name and greet one another in the high street. Mark Solano’s (Michael Peña) morning stroll to work gives the viewer a first glimpse of the many characters whose paths will cross over the ten episodes. At this point they are blissfully unaware of the dark shadow that will soon wipe out their bonhomie.

The heart of the drama around which the plot revolves is the death of a child. The murder of twelve year old Danny Solano (Nikolas Filipovic) would hit any neighbourhood hard, but this is a town where serious crime is rare and murder is unheard of. In fact, newly arrived big city cop Emmett Carver, played by an American accented David Tennant, is more than once reassured of the fact, that this sort of thing never happens. It’s a pity for Carver that it has happened then, as he’s come to town under something of a cloud. Now his plans to keep a low profile have been swept out to sea on a tide of fear, paranoia and suspicion the moment that young Danny’s body showed up on the beach. David's portrayal is of a closed up and defensive individual and there are hints that Carver has many layers to be peeled back and his own secrets to reveal. Whatever happened to Carver before his arrival in town has damaged him. The steely, no-frills exterior encloses something more brittle within.

Carver is paired in the investigation with local detective Ellie Miller, played by Anna Gunn. There’s a satisfying tension between them both from the start. Not only has Carver stepped into the role that Ellie thought that she had been guaranteed, but his abrupt offhand manner is completely alien to her, unlike any other professional relationship she has. Ellie is a daughter of Gracepoint and as a life long resident she is fiercely defensive of her home town. She cannot comprehend that someone from Gracepoint, possibly someone she actually knows, might commit such an horrific act. It is much safer for her to believe that they have been assaulted from elsewhere and Carver’s presence is a constant reminder of that outside world. His ways are not Gracepoint ways and his ideas and suspicions are abhorrent and frightening to her. Anna Gunn steps into the key role of Ellie and makes it her own. It’s quite difficult for a Broadchurch viewer to watch without even unconsciously comparing her performance with Olivia Colman, but there's no argument of bad or good; it's just different. Anna’s is a sharper, fiercer, more confrontational Ellie than the original passive-aggressive, tearful version beloved of UK audiences. However, it’s this slight shift that can give a completely different feel to certain scenes. There’s already a sense that Ellie, currently reeling from a series of shocks, will have hidden depths and strengths and once recovered will be a force to be reckoned with.

Episode one introduces many of the key faces that will become familiar as the story unfolds. Stand out performances so far include Virginia Kull as grieving mum Beth Solano, Kevin Rankin as slightly creepy town priest Paul Coates, Jack Irvine as Ellie’s son Tom, who turns from sorrowful classmate into a furtive, shifty kid the moment the bedroom door is closed, and veteran movie star Nick Nolte, complete with an almost impenetrable salty sea dog accent. The first episode establishes the murder victim as part of his community and sets up his network of relationships and what he meant to the other protagonists: son, brother, wildlife group member, best friend, and so on. It also throws up some early clues: the way that Danny died leaves it open for any member of the community to commit the crime. Meanwhile the actions of journalist Owen Burke (Kevin Zegers) have opened the door wide for an influx of journalists and general snoopers to fix the small community under an unwelcome spotlight.

Mark’s stroll down the high street, opening the episode and introducing the town and its residents, is neatly bookended at the close by Carver’s TV appeal message. As he speaks there is a montage of the potential suspects. Gracepoint might be the perfect, peaceful little town on the surface, but within its population there lurks a killer. In this town, anyone could be a suspect.