The opening half-an-hour of Criminal Justice was astonishing. Astonishingly acted, astonishingly observed and astonishingly original.
Two ostensibly disparate narrative threads began: a handsome, erudite barrister delivered an eloquent, and damning, soliloquy at the conclusion of a murder trial, before relaxing afterwards, joking with his friends, and going out for a jog to train for the London Marathon he was running for charity.
Meanwhile, a trembling woman dashed frenetically about her home, and then after she went out for a drive she abruptly changed direction and went to a house where she was greeted sympathetically by a man. Later, she had a shower and curiously cleansed the shower screen for every last smear, every little last mark of evidence that she had taken a shower.
It was obvious that the two strands would soon entwine, but how? The barrister Joe Miller (Matthew Macfadyen) made a phone call, which was received by the woman, Juliet (Maxine Peake), who was evidently his wife. Why did she refuse to answer? Joe, we had seen, was a thoroughly decent bloke – maybe the problem was with her? Was she guilty about some misdemeanour?
Perceptions began to alter as Joe bought some drugs from some shifty looking characters under a bridge. His run was simply a ruse to purchase drugs. A cliché, perhaps, in drawing characters that associates blank evil with narcotics, but in this vivid scenario perfectly apt.
Arriving home Joe greets his wife warmly, giving her a bunch of flowers – again an acute detail; flowers are so often the insensitive husband’s way of telling his wife he loves her as though she were a cartoon facsimile of femininity. And indeed, Joe declares his love for Juliet not as an expression of affection but as a rattle of the chain; you can almost hear the vowels contracting in his throat as he tightens the leash.
She is palpably terrified. Working on the laptop, she shuts the lid and wipes the history, and when he asks what she was doing she claims to have been reading emails. When she’s gone out he checks the laptop, observing that the latest emails are unopened. She’s lying. He deliberately leaves the laptop lid up to indicate he knows she’s been lying.
After deducing that Juliet went out earlier in the day – from noticing a smear on the shower screen – he concocts a ruse to visit the supermarket where Juliet claims she went earlier. Their daughter Ella (Alice Sykes) and her friend Katie are happily playing upstairs.
Getting into the car, Joe takes out a notebook and writes down the mileage, drives to the supermarket and notes down the distance, comparing it to an earlier figure. Later on, he offers to give Katie a lift home. Again noting the distance he infers that Juliet had visited Katie’s home, and Katie’s dad is the man we saw earlier. And then through protracted silences worthy of Pinter, Macfadyen conveys a horrid menace towards Katie’s dad, eventually suggesting they meet for squash. Again transmitting threat through the most banal of activities.
Arriving home, Juliet is trembling. She knows Joe is aware of her lies. He puts Ella to bed, suggesting she wears headphones to help her sleep when it’s obvious it’s to deafen her to her mother’s torment.
And the abuse is far more horrific than you imagined. Cognisant of criminal law, Joe doesn’t abuse her with the mindless violence we later hear about from Juliet’s cellmate after she’s arrested. He uses the antiquated conjugal right of a man to have sex with his wife, although he performs it anally to hurt and humiliate her in the knowledge that it is difficult enough for a rape conviction to be secured between two strangers, and almost impossible for a married couple. Like a true ‘professional’ he leaves no evidence of physical abuse, only bruising that could be explained away in a relationship between any normal loving couple – and he does love her, remember the flowers? Unable to take any more, she stabs him with a kitchen knife and runs out into the street. Ella pulls the knife from her beloved dad’s abdomen and the police and ambulance service arrive.
It isn’t to say what followed was bad, merely that the standard of drama slipped from the brilliant to the very good. And it’s because the viewer’s perceptions had been heightened by the opening chapter that the ensuing flaws were more apparent.
The set-up is quite conventional. The police must investigate to discover what the viewer already knows about Joe’s abuse of his wife. The frustration is encapsulated by the vaguely misogynistic DI Sexton (Steve MacIntosh) who thinks Juliet murdered her husband in cold blood and interprets each new crumb of evidence towards his own end.
Against this is DI Faber (Denis Lawson), who is far more methodical than his deputy and is dubious about Joe’s gleaming professional and personal reputation. This of course injects conflict into the vacuum which would usually be between the victim and antagonist – with Juliet too timid presently to reveal exactly what Joe did to her and with Joe having expired at the end of episode two.
Meanwhile, Juliet’s solicitor Jack (Sophie Okenedo) and barrister Anna (Zoe Telford) must draw the story from the guilt-ridden Juliet who, after the rejection by Ella, seems to want to be punished for her actions.
It’s all well written and acted, but lacks the earlier originality and excellence, and as a consequence the further the ripples spread out from the façade of happy domesticity of Joe and Juliet the less beguiling it becomes. We hope that this is just a lull and that the inevitable court case is true to its high standards and that it doesn’t descend into a struggle between right and wrong that serves first to frustrate the viewer and only secondly run true to the events of the opening half-hour.