Cathy Butler checks out this Dublin Noir, out now on DVD.
Dublin’s urban landscape seems to move between shades of grey rather than ‘noir’, but aspects of the drab and foggy streets of 1950’s Dublin lend themselves rather well to the genre in BBC’s crime noir thriller Quirke, based on the novels released under John Banville’s crime genre pen-name, Benjamin Black. The three part mini-series is now available on DVD, shortly after ending its run on RTE.
Gabriel Byrne plays the eponymous Quirke, (first name unknown, Inspector Morse style) a pathologist with a troubled past and a drink problem. He has a rocky relationship with his adoptive brother Mal Griffin (Nick Dunning), a doctor who works in the same hospital as Quirke, and a history with Malachy’s American wife Sarah (Geraldine Somerville). His 20-year-old niece, Phoebe (Aisling Franciosi), adores him a little too much, much to the chagrin of her father, Mal.
The series opens with the peculiar circumstances surrounding the death a young, unmarried woman named Christine Falls, whose death certificate Quirke discovers Mal tampering with in his office. Mal has listed the death as due to pulmonary embolism, yet Quirke’s autopsy suggests she may have died giving birth. As his own family is now implicated in an apparent cover-up of something that would have been scandalous in that era, Quirke must try to get to the bottom of the young woman’s death and deal with repercussions.
Thematically, the show hits on some of the likely subjects that such a period in Irish history would feature – the iron rule of the Catholic Church, Magdalene Laundries, unmarried mothers – while some are glossed over. The first episode is quite rigorously anti-Catholic, the various religious figures exuding caricaturish villainy as they discuss their underhand plans or obfuscate the dark truth from those who would seek to expose it. This is understandable given Ireland’s religious history, but somewhat heavy-handed nonetheless.
On the other hand it is difficult not to question the abundance of upper class people who feature in the narrative. Perhaps the various cultural representations of early to mid-20th century Ireland have been so populated by poverty and the working class that a representation of such a time featuring mostly wealthy and privileged people seems lacking in credibility or plausibility. The ease with which some of the main players hop back and forth to America seems a stretch, as this was at a time when ‘American Wakes’ were being held for those who emigrated as the cost of travel likely meant that most Irish emigrants would never see their families again. Perhaps this shows how far removed the likes of the Griffins were from most people in the country at the time, rather than being an oversight or narrative convenience.
The series features some striking visuals, with excellent use of colour – or lack thereof. In episode one, as Quirke bumps into Sarah outside his house, Sarah’s clothes and hair are rendered in full colour against the grey background of the street behind her, in almost a Pleasantville-effect style. Similar effects used when Quirke is spending time with Phoebe seem to suggest that from Quirke’s perspective these two women are the brightest aspects of his life, being otherwise constantly surrounded by dead bodies and Dublin’s grey streets.
The noir-ish elements are strong throughout, with some differences. The plot is slower paced, often more concerned with Quirke’s own story than the fate of the unfortunate women. Each episode sees another young, beautiful woman dead or murdered. This trope does grow tiresome, not just in this particular production but in countless crime novels and television shows. The endurance of this trope and audience and reader appetites for it seem to suggest that it is easier to feel sorry for a beautiful young woman who gets murdered than, say, an ugly man. In Quirke, as with much other crime narrative, man must mete out justice for the poor ‘fallen women’. The idea is reinforced thematically and narratively; to ‘fall’ pregnant, a fallen woman, Christine Falls. Looked at in this way, the much used trope is effective as a tool to highlight the position of women in Irish society of the time.
Performance wise, Byrne fits the bill as the brooding alcoholic with a dark past. Geraldine Somerville is standout as Sarah, managing to convey in one character the woman Sarah has become due to the choices she made in her youth, as well as that girl she was when she first fell for Quirke. Somerville meshes these girlish and mature aspects of Sarah together with great artistry, making her quite compelling to watch. Stanley Townsend is a scene-stealer as the sardonic Inspector Hackett, always having time for tea and a cigarette, and an occasional ally to Quirke’s endeavours. Hackett is possibly one of the most likeable characters, my only complaint being he wasn’t featured prominently enough.
All things considered, Quirke makes up with its strong visuals and capable cast what it is lacking in its narrative. If anyone has ever wondered what ‘Dublin Noir’ would look like, Quirke would hit pretty close to the mark. A certainly unique and interesting take on the genre.
With a combined running time of 270 minutes, the double disc of Quirke is available to buy on DVD from 7th March from select stores nationwide, including: Tesco, HMV, Xtra-vision, Golden Discs and Tower Records (Dublin).
Quirke DVD is also available to buy online from www.elementpictures.ie/shop