Synopsis: After a major industrial accident kills dozens of people in the north of England, deputy prime minister Tom Dawkins (Gabriel Byrne, The Usual Suspects) takes on a giant American chemical corporation and eventually his own government to uncover the truth. This contemporary political thriller boasts a superb supporting cast including Charles Dance (Game of Thrones) as a reptilian civil servant, Rupert Graves (Sherlock) as a smooth politician, and Gina McKee (The Borgias) as a tough journalist.
Secret State 8.0
eyelights: Rupert Graves. Gabriel Byrne. Gina McKee. the multi-layered political intrigue. the ambiguity of the ending.
eyesores: the emotional distance of the lead character. the ambiguity of the ending.
‘Secret State’ is a four-part mini-series based on Chris Mullins’ political novel ‘A Very British Coup’. While the original novel was published in 1982, this loose adaptation was made 30 years later. I say “loose” because, based on the first adaptation, 1988’s ‘A Very British Coup‘, I can’t quite see the parallels between the two.
(Of course, I haven’t read the source material – perhaps the first mini-series was divergent, leading both TV versions to be quite dissimilar).
In any event, although both take place in the offices of the British Prime Minister, ‘Secret State’ revolves around a completely different plot: instead of hinging on American military bases, this one’s about a conflict with a multinational corporation based in the U.S. There’s also the no-small-matter of the death of the PM.
You see, whereas the lead of ‘A Very British Coup’ is a newly-elected Labour party Prime Minister with socialist affiliations and inclinations, this one is a Deputy Prime Minister with previous field experience who steps into the shoes of his predecessor after the latter’s plane disappears during a cross-Atlantic return flight back to the U.K.
Both have strong moral fibers, but whereas ‘AVBC’s Harry Perkins is a man of the people who tries to develop the oft-talked about but never truly attained “open government”, ‘Secret State’s Tom Dawkins is a more reserved loner type who is not especially warm or charismatic, but whose reputation is built on his tenacity and stability.
Gabriel Byrne steps into the shoes of this incarnation of the character and he’s highly credible, even though he makes Dawkins unapproachable: the man appears so distant that you wonder if he’s not elsewhere than in the moment, that he may even be a little depressed. Even when he’s tackling issues head on, Dawkins is detached.
But he earns our respect through his actions.
The rest of the cast is also quite good, however Charles Dance outshines everyone in the few scenes he has as John Hodder, the Chief Whip. Similarly, Rupert Graves is pitch-perfect as Felix Durrell, one of Dawkins’s chief rivals and one of his Ministers. I’ve never quite liked him before but, after this, I’d like to see more of Graves’ oeuvre.
Then there’s Gina McKee. Look, full disclosure: I’ve had a small crush on McKee ever since ‘Notting Hill‘. Her part isn’t huge or stellar, but the journalist she plays is (predictably enough) a key player in the proceedings. She delivered a typically solid performance, but she seemed frail here. Still, it was really nice to see her anyway.
The series begins with Dawkins overlooking a devastated neighbourhood with his aides. At first we don’t know if it was massive fire, a bomb, or even a war zone. It turns out that it was a PetroFex factory explosion that got out of hand, with reduced safety procedures as the cause. PetroFex winds up being the chief antagonist of the piece.
While ‘Secret State’ shows some behind-the-scenes political maneuvering, much of it revolves on Dawkins’ attempts to get compensation for the victims of the PetroFex disaster and finding out what happened to his predecessor. In so doing, he is pitted head-to-head with powerful corporate and military forces that plan his downfall.
The stakes and twists are much more contemporary than its predecessor, in that corporate control is becoming a growing concern. ‘Secret State’ suggests that corporations have the power to trump government policy and national laws, and it shows Dawkins using unorthodox means to avoid traps and pitfalls set before him.
One of the things I liked about this version was watching the exchanges taking place in the House of Commons; it’s such a different sight from the Canadian equivalent, being in closer quarters and with the leaders walking up to a dividing table between them, using it as a lectern to speak. It feels much more dramatic, poignant.
I also enjoyed the fact that Dawkins is an honourable man who tries very hard to do what he feels is the right thing, no matter how difficult it is. He also dares to confront opposition when others would buckle under pressure. I find this admirable, even if his character is more flawed than the original (who was far more inspiring).
I also liked that a multilayered conspiracy seemed to be circling around Dawkins; you just never knew where the knives would be coming from next, who he could actually trust. It was impossible to know how deep it ran; you knew there were external forces at work, possibly even internal ones, too, but how close to him did it get?
This leads to the ambiguous ending. In the previous mini-series, Prime Minister Perkins decides to call an election to circumvent a blackmail attempt. Here, Dawkins decides to ask for a vote of non-confidence in his own government in the House of Commons. I like that both outcomes are unclear, because it forces the viewer to think.
It’s not just a question of whether or not the gamble worth it: It’s “What does it all mean”? What does this say about our democracy? These are questions that are worth asking, at a time when the public good rests in the hands of just a few conglomerates. Have we lost control of our own countries? And, if so, how do we regain control?
‘Secret State’ offers no clear answers, although it does serve us a protagonist who presents us with alternative decision-making. Granted, it follows a few genre tropes that we could do without, but I think that it’s intelligent enough that it’s worth watching. Also, it’s different enough from its source material that it justifies its existence.
I’d certainly recommend it.
Dates of viewings: Sept 15+16, 2015