Sometimes familiarity breeds not contempt, but satisfaction. Formulas stick around when they work, whether it’s the Pythagorean theorem or the recipe for Coke or the genre conventions of the legal thriller. Knowing what Coke is gonna taste like is part of the ritual, right?
The new legal thriller “The Escape Artist” runs along the same lines. Almost old-fashioned in its tenacious respect for a certain type of formula, and for the unlikely contrivances that are part and parcel of such dramas, even knowing what’s coming next doesn’t lessen its appeal.
David Tennant stars as brilliant defense attorney Will Burton, famous for his winning ways with seemingly unwinnable cases, a skill at ‘escaping’ that has also won him the professional envy and enmity of fellow lawyer Maggie Gardner (Sophie Okonedo). With his skills in undermining evidence, he gains the acquittal of alleged killer Liam Foyle (Toby Kebbell). When Burton apparently slights him after their courtroom victory, it quickly becomes clear that Foyle is indeed a psychotic murderer, and he makes Burton’s family his next target. Burton pays a heavy price for his perceived hubris, and has to bring all his lawful skills to bear, and some others beside, to see that justice is done.
Structured as three hour-long episodes, this Masterpiece Mystery relies heavily on the implausible. But in Tennant, they may have found the perfect Will Burton, a combination of winning charm, understated arrogance and sly wit that raises the level of the entire film. His gift for rapid patter and casual humor, well-deployed in his stint as Doctor Who, is in sharper focus here, with an extra layer of smarty-pants audaciousness. I also enjoyed the warmth of his relationship with his son, and their small moments of connection after tragedy strikes.
Recent Tony-award winner Okonedo has the most thankless role, that of the calculating professional nemesis. But her scenes with Tennant have a real electricity to them, and she grabs the bitchy end of her character’s stick with both hands. Kebbell, soon to be seen in the “Fantastic Four” reboot as Doctor Doom, makes for a believably dangerous opponent, and his dark-eyed, silent stare has a hulking intensity that is unnerving, to say the least.
Directed briskly by Brian Welsh, things move along quickly enough to paper over the plot holes, and those annoying dutch camera angles, so favored in these kind of thrillers, are kept to a minimum. At the end of the film, one might question some of the contrivances of the plot, and the unchallenged tit-for-tat moral center in Burton’s actions, but found I myself savoring the twists and turns of the script by David Wolstencroft, even when I knew I was being manipulated.
The Blu-ray of “The Escape Artist” is presented in High Definition 1080i. The disc looks a step up from earlier PBS releases, clean and colorful, and with excellent definition in the shadowy darkness. There is an option for English SDH subtitles.
The audio track is a serviceable Stereo 2.0, with no set-up options.
A pair of interviews, more than the usual nothing that comes with most PBS releases. One is with star David Tennant, and the other with creator and writer David Wolstencroft. Both are interesting in a low-key fashion, and Tennant comes across just as likable as you would hope.
Slick and crafty, with plotting that doesn’t always hold up to scrutiny, “The Escape Artist” is still an engaging legal thriller with a stellar lead performance by David Tennant.