The Laws of Motion (2014 TVM)

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Eh? Father Brown goes noir?
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UK / 43 minutes / color / BBC Dir: Paul Gibson Pr: Jonathan Phillips Scr: Tahsin Guner Based on the character created by G.K. Chesterton Cine: Alan Beech Cast: Mark Williams, Sorcha Cusack, Alex Price, Nancy Carroll, Tom Chambers, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Amelia Lowdell, Cian Barry, Oliver Mellor, Lisa Jackson, John Burton.

What’s this? An episode of the BBC’s Father Brown TV series on a site called Noirish? I know I have a deliberate policy of casting my net as wide as possible here, but surely this is ridiculous. Have I gone bonkers?

Probably yes, but in this instance there’s a rationale behind the seeming madness.

Honest.

A while ago I read—I’ve long forgotten where—that this particular episode is a DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) riff, and so, eager as ever to find noir-related curios, I tracked it down. Certainly the cast list backed up the claim—two of the characters are called Walter MacMurray and Phyllis Stanwyck, which seems a bit of a dead giveaway.

And yet . . .

Audrey (Tracy-Ann Oberman) receives a slap in the face.

Audrey MacMurray (Oberman) is a ruthless businesswoman of middle years and a person of great cruelty in her private life; as one character observes, she chews people up, spits them out and delights in so doing. Her hobby is driving racecars, and today, somewhere in Gloucestershire, she’s partaking in the 14th Annual Charity Hill Climb meeting that operates out of her own premises. (A hill climb, I’ve learned, is a timed event. Successive drivers travel an uphill course and the one with the fastest time wins.)

A Father Brown (Mark Williams) de nos jours.

Among the audience are series characters Father Brown (Williams), his housekeeper, Mrs. McCarthy (Cusack), the amoral—and here rapidly sozzled—Lady Felicia (Carroll), Lady Felicia’s chauffeur Sid Carter (Price) and local top bobby Inspector Sullivan (Chambers). Also on the scene are Audrey’s very much younger husband, ex-professional footballer Walter MacMurray (Mellor), and her secretary, the rather plain, austere-looking Phyllis Stanwyck (Jackson).

Before the start of the race there are omens. Widow Harriet Welsby (Lowdell) approaches Audrey and slaps her face: “You killed my husband. You’ll pay for it.” And, when Audrey approaches Sid in the men’s lavs and proposes a bit of up-against-the-wall naughtiness, her current extramarital lover, mechanic Gary Bakewell (Barry), walks in and catches them at it. Obviously he’s not pleased, so later she knees him in the groin and fires him.

Gary (Cian Barry), Audrey’s current extramarital squeeze.

It’s hardly a surprise when, halfway up the course, Audrey’s car runs off the track; she’s discovered dead and her car’s brake-fluid pipes are discovered to have been cut. Obviously murder.

Lady Felicia (Nancy Carroll) panics as the car explodes.

Inspector Sullivan (Tom Chambers) examines the death scene.

Sullivan, in the tradition of dumb screen cops everywhere, hauls in Harriet, who’s found in possession of cutters. At Audrey’s funeral, Gary very publicly confesses, so Harriet’s freed and Gary’s incarcerated. Sullivan also hauls in Father Brown who, having spotted through a window that Walter and Phyllis have a canoodling habit, has sussed out the identity of the guilty parties—they report him as a peeping Tom.

Father Brown (Mark Williams) interviews Harriet (Amelia Lowdell) in chokey.

Just by reading the cast list we’re well on the way to solving the murder, although there are some surprises in the eventual denouement: matters aren’t quite as straightforwardly twisted as they might seem.

Despite what I’d been told, the relationship between this tale and Double Identity is one more of surface than of substance. Walter’s not an insurance salesman, there’s no Edgar G. Robinson character to act as father figure and nemesis, and Phyllis isn’t an unfaithful wife intent on cashing in on a vast insurance policy at the expense of her husband’s life.

Alongside Walter (Oliver Mellor), the mousy Miss Stanwyck (Lisa Jackson) . . .

. . . and the femme fatale Phyllis (Lisa Jackson again).

While the mystery’s pretty rudimentary, and the supposed cause of death wouldn’t fool any halfway competent medical examiner for more than about a picosecond, I found a lot to enjoy here. Leaving aside the series characters, there’s some excellent casting work among the guest actors: Oliver Mellor looks every inch the ex-footballer (one of Audrey’s nastiest lines to him, referring to her lover Gary, is “He’s about twice your size, give or take an inch or two”); Tracy-Ann Oberman is really quite splendid as the Woman Of A Certain Age who’s nevertheless red hot to men younger and older; and Lisa Jackson is if anything even better, playing what’s in effect a dual role, as the mousy Miss Stanwyck and the very striking and forceful Phyllis.

The Laws of Motion, episode 10 of Father Brown’s second season, was initially aired on the BBC in January 2014; the series began in 2013 and, so far as I’m aware, is still running. The episode’s not quite the noirish curio I’d anticipated, but it’s nice to see the classic genre being homaged in a modern TV series. At the same time, it’d be jolly if someone someday could produce a Father Brown TV series that actually had Father Brown in it, as opposed to some almost completely unrelated character of the same name.

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10 thoughts on “The Laws of Motion (2014 TVM)

  1. My partner is a big fan of the series and so I see a fair bit of it. I agree that there can be elements of noir in this. The episode is not the first one to turn a bit dark. And Oberman is an incredibly versatile actress.

    • It wasn’t really in any way noirish beyond its obvious, selfconscious bits of homage to Double Indemnity.

      I’m not sure I’ve seen Oberman in other things, but I was extremely impressed by the strength of her performance here — way too good for a tv episode, really.

  2. I’ve become a bit of a fan of this series, mainly because of Mark Williams. I don’t think I’ve crossed paths with this episode though.

    • Excellent point — I’d wondered what that racket might be. And I’m sure there’s room for an episode in which a plump but spectral figure methodically takes out the cast and crew, one by one . . .

  3. Haha, very tickled by the idea of a noir Father Brown, but I think you’ve convinced me. I watched this quite a long time ago — probably on its first broadcast — and was surprised at how competently put together it was for a series which isn’t exactly famed for its decent plotting (unless they’re outright stealing plots from other novels like Green for Danger…how the hell they got away with that I’ll never know).

    And if you want a red hot woman of a certain age, well, you’ll be hard-pressed to do better than Tracy-Ann Oberman. She’s frequently the highlight of anything she’s in, and is clearly having a ball with the material here.

    • I confess I haven’t seen other episodes of the series — if it has been shown over here (a lot of the UK mystery series are) I’ve missed it — so will take your word for it that the plotting is by and large lousy.

      I shall make a point of looking out for Tracy-Ann Oberman whenever in future I’m in a red-hot mood. That aside, I can quite believe you when you say that “She’s frequently the highlight of anything she’s in”; when she was on the screen here, everyone else was support cast.

      • Oh, the plotting is beyond terrible; it’s a lot of fun, but such a very long way from essential — one for the end of the day when you just want to sit and watch some moving pictures without having to think about it too much. Definitely fulfils a purpose — I’ve watched all five series! — but only scratches a very specific itch.

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