Overvaluing ambiguity: The Escape Artist (Brian Welsh, 2013)


In The Escape Artist, a three part TV miniseries, David Tennant plays Will Burton, a barrister who has never lost a case. Burton can defend anyone, no matter their crime, but a single lapse in politeness towards his latest client, Liam Foyle (Toby Kebbell), leads to tragedy. Soon Burton’s fiercest rival, Maggie Gardner (Sophie Okonedo) is defending Foyle for the murder of one of Burton’s family.

TEA appears to be a quality production. It has a slick and polished (albeit subdued) look. The pace is fairly slow, but maintains a sense of tension that makes the series easy to watch. This means that the story’s problems only become noticeable afterwards, upon reflection.

And problems there are: this series squanders almost every opportunity available to it. This is largely because, aside from Foyle, the characters’ motivations aren’t well established. Does Burton work for criminals because he truly believes they all deserve a good defence, or does the challenge just serve his own ego? Does Maggie hate Will, or just want to better him? The answers to these important questions remain unclear. The story’s moral aspect stays muddled, just as potential plot points, such as the differences between English and Scottish law, go unexplored.

Ultimately, TEA is trying to achieve ambiguity. Maybe Foyle, though disturbed, is not a murderer. Maybe Will’s accusations and further responses are unjustified. The series aims to leave the viewer with something to ponder after the conclusion. Combined with plot holes and dead ends, however, the overall effect looks like nothing other than bad writing.

Tennant, as could be expected, delivers a strong performance. Kebbell lifts his role higher than the standard TV psycho, but this is solely because of his acting – the character just isn’t interesting. Meanwhile, the series wastes Okonedo’s talents, as well as Ashley Jensen in the role of Will’s wife. None of the supporting cast and characters leave a lasting impression, rather like The Escape Artist itself.


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