Not long ago Channel 4 made the contentious decision to broadcast the subtitled French drama ‘The Returned’. With an abundance of production companies making award-winning British TV Drama it seemed counter-productive to broadcast a European Drama – especially if it could fail to interest a UK audience. Thankfully the series did, however, become a UK hit grabbing 1.5 million viewers for its first episode. The mystery, suspense, and horror aspects proved to entice the audience who drew positive parallels between British and French Drama productions.
Now they’ve dipped back into the French TV market and chosen Canal’s ‘Witnesses’ as their 10pm night-time thriller.
Set in the rainy coastal town of Le Tréport, a group of bodies – recently dug from their graves – are discovered in a show home posed as a ‘perfect family’. Detective Sandra Winckler (Marie Dompnier) discovers a photo of ex-police chief Paul (Thierry Lhermitte) in the home realising the crime might have been a message to him. Even after being in a car crash that killed his wife and crushed his leg, Paul endeavors to help Sandra find their killer – but not without withholding a few truths of his own.
The Coastal seaside town is a beautiful yet dreary place – blending wide open fields with claustrophobic housing. Even some of the detectives agree, stating that it would be impossible to interview anyone as the inhabitants are well-known introverts. It brings with it a feel of isolation which is not too dissimilar to ‘Hinterland’.
Also, from the first episode it’s clear that Sandra is one of the main focuses of the show. She’s a female detective with a family trying hard to balance the two juxtaposed jobs – motherhood and murder detective. Not only that but throughout the first episode we get glimpses of what we think could be OCD – Small indicators like straightening objects, cleaning at night, and noticing small discrepancies in someone’s appearance. Not wanting to let it control her, she uses her illness to great effect finding evidence and connections that no other detective could ever possibly find. She is a brilliant character because she doesn’t play on the ‘weak female’ stereotype. Rather Sandra is a brilliant detective who so happens to be a woman – and by that I mean she doesn’t have the obvious stereotypical pitfalls that hinder many American TV dramas. Akin to Sarah Lund and Saga Noren, Sandra adorns the world of brilliant female characters. An accolade I’m sure is welcome.
Paul is a much more silent character who – having been a detective for many years – knows when to be quiet and study a crime scene. This calm disposition is what keeps him suspicious throughout the episode and never out of the eye line of Sandra. However, the two characters compliment each other perfectly blending Sandra’s work ethic with Paul’s experience.
It’s sometimes easy to forget this is a French drama and not a Swedish Nordic-Noir drama like ‘The Bridge’. The similarities are ripe – work obsessed female police officer with tendencies of Anxiety and OCD seems incredibly familiar. Even the dreary grey colour palette takes inspiration from the Scandinavian giants. Writer and Director Herve Hadmar said:
The goal was to make a Nordic thriller, dark, strange and beautiful. It’s a Nordic thriller with one question in it: Does the ideal family exist?
Herve has combined all of the popular elements from European dramas and compacted them into a new French product – especially when it comes to broad female characterisation. A product that is unique enough to stand alone as a ‘français Noir’.
Witnesses is a superb programme reminiscent of Swedish and Danish detective dramas. With a strong cast, unique location, and excitingly mysterious narrative, Canal+ have created a drama that is unique and popular around the world. However the pacing of the show really has a detrimental effect on the progression of the drama. Even into episode two the show struggles with ‘telling and not showing’ – providing us with information but not really moving anywhere fast. Thankfully the season has six episodes (unlike The Killing’s 20 episodes) and the action begins to pick up pace rapidly after episode two. My recommendation is to hang in there and you will be justly rewarded.
Witnesses premiers Wednesday 22nd July on Channel 4 at 10pm.