19 October 2014

TV: Our Girl

Official Synopsis: Our Girl is the story of Molly Dawes (Lacey Turner) born and raised in the London Borough of Newham. Molly is the eldest of five kids with little future, a difficult father and a mother who always wanted more for her. Leaving school with no qualifications, Molly has a part-time job in a local nail bar. Drunk and despondent on the evening of her 18th birthday, she throws up in the doorway of an Army Recruitment Office. She doesn't know it then, but it's an action that will change her life forever...

This first series of Our Girl picks up a year after the special that aired in 2013. Molly's now a fully qualified medic, and off to Afghanistan for her first tour. Despite the backdrop and context of this series, the emphasis is squarely on how events affect our lead cast, primarily Molly of course. This is a decision that sits favourably with me. The aspects I was most interested by across these five hour-long episodes were the developing relationships between our four main characters.

Molly Dawes is amiable, no-nonsense and selfless. Her signing up for the army is undoubtedly part of looking for a better life, and they quickly become her adopted family. There are of course tensions within 2 Section at first, but it's really nice to see these iron out over the course of this series, as the unit really become one. Lacey Turner gives a good performance generally, but I did feel at points that she was portraying the character a little more obtusely than was written or required. She is the main character in Our Girl but isn't a conventional audience identification figure. Watching her grow and mature is an enjoyable exercise, and Dawes' affection for a local girl named Bashira (which neatly acts as the impetus for many following events) feels true to the character. She makes a real impact on the people she meets, changing them for the better. Her family are a complex bunch and while I didn't necessarily warm to the characters themselves, I did enjoy scenes featuring them. I was really surprised to learn that Dave Dawes, Molly's dad was played by none other than Sean Gallagher (Chip in Doctor Who: New Earth)!

Smurf is initially presented as the second lead character of this, but pleasingly his role becomes more ambiguous as the series goes on. This mirrors real emotions as Molly becomes less certain of who he is. Smurf is a Newport lad who joined up because he wanted to follow in his brother's footsteps. He 'encountered' Molly "round the back of an Indian in Guildford" so there's natural tension between them to begin with. He's been obsessing about her ever since, but the reverse is true for Dawes. The history and web of backstory associated with Smurf - which goes on to prove so important in the final episode - is much better enjoyed through the episodes rather than me spelling it out here, but it does all come to a head very well. Plus his mum's just great. Iwan Rheon gives a solid performance, but always seemed somewhat outclassed by those around him to me.

Ben Aldridge plays the part of Captain James - or The Boss Man, as he's generally referred to. James is a hardened commander with a personal life that comes back to bite him towards the series' conclusion. He's utterly respected by 2 Section, and knows his own mind. He makes the ultimate sacrifice in the end, doing what's being for his men and the army rather than himself. Watching James and Dawes' relationship escalate across these five hours is one of my highlights, and one of the best things about this. Aldridge is perfect in the part; slightly pompous, but completely down-to-earth. James was exactly the sort of man you could rely on. If you did as he said, there was a pretty good chance you'd be alright. The moments when Aldridge is allowed to flex his acting muscles, in the more tender and intimate scenes, are his greatest. I expect to see him popping up in a lot more shows from now on.

Lastly, Zubin Varla stars as Qaseem, the section's interpreter. Qaseem is utterly respectable, and possibly my favourite character from the whole series. Varla's moments with Lacey Turner are magical and if we are graced with another series I really hope Qaseem makes a reappearance. He was well written and performed as the man who will always do what is right. The drama is in watching him attempt to do it. Although haunted by his past, he doesn't fall into what could be considered a narrative 'trope' by having recurring mental breakdowns - but such incidents would of course be understandable. Qaseem's actions, particularly in the last episode, endear him to us (or at least me) as an audience, and a lot of the character is down to Varla's effortless screen presence.

The visual direction of this series was impressive as well. The action sequences, which occur several times an episode, are unwaveringly tense and unpredictable. There's innovative camerawork and a very good overall look to the series. Although Antony Philipson handles the majority of the series, I must say that my personal favourite of the lot was Episode Four - directed by Richard Senior. It's not just the direction that highlights this; everyone seems to be on top form. The sequence towards the climax is just heart-stopping. How could 'they' be so stupid and endanger everyone?! And then it goes from bad to worse as the shit really hits the fan... Just a standout piece of television. Its impact is built on the knowledge and familiarity the audience has with these characters from the preceding three episodes, so unfortunately I can't recommend only this episode, but the series is well worth sitting through (not that it's a chore) to reach this point.

To summarise, I really enjoyed Our Girl. It feels earthly and realistic thanks to its stars. The lighting and direction is always near-perfect, and the score (from BBC Wales' Ben Foster) is brilliant. There are a few drawbacks in that sometimes it feels like events stretch credibility a little in terms of time frames, and some explosions look dodgily computer-generated, but this is a showcase of some of the BBC's finest talent. The locations are stunning, really beautiful (Newham less so) and the design language feels authentic to this civilian. For a series about self-exploration and relationships, I can easily see this continuing for another series, particularly given the impact of Molly's homecoming. There is a bit too much back and forth between Britain and the Middle East for either to feel like the definitive location of the series, but perhaps that's deliberate, to emphasise Molly's feelings of being lost. This is good all the way through, but gets exponentially greater with each passing week, peaking at Episode Four - although the finale's certainly no slouch. I'd recommend this to any fan of drama in a heartbeat.

In a Nutshell: Stirring human drama in a heightened environment. Excellent.

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