a confession review

Director: Paul Andrew Williams
Writers: Jeff Pope, Steve Fulcher
Cast: Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton, Siobhan Finneran, Joe Absolom
Streaming on: SonyLIV

Imagine speaking to a customer service representative on the phone. You have a genuine problem. You don’t have answers. You want help. You are desperate. You are human. Yet, the person you’re speaking to sounds like a robot. He or she is trained to be formal and follow a rulebook. The person speaks in script. This frustrates you more. You want the person capable of solving your problem to empathize with you first. You want the person to have a personality. You want to shake the person out of automated mode – innovate a little, lower the guard, react, be human. You blame the “higher-ups,” the company, for being so inflexible.

A Confession, a six-part mini-series, examines that one ‘representative’ who decides to break script for the greater good. It tells the true story of a man who, in the heat of the moment, places instinct over procedure to preserve the humanity of the situation. That he is an officer of the law – a Detective Superintendent investigating the case of a missing girl – only heightens the honesty of what is quite an unusual narrative. The rules here are literally set in stone; they form an unemotional system that is designed to solve emotional conflict. (Notice, for example, the way a police officer delivers bad news to a family; every stoic expression is rehearsed.). As a result, A Confession is a police procedural about the deficiencies of procedure – a rare beast that distinguishes, and walks the fragile bridge, between truth and justice.  

DS Steve Fulcher (Martin Freeman; going from Watson to Sherlock) launches a search mission for 22-year-old Sian O’Callaghan, who has disappeared after a night at the local pub. Her family, led by her mother (Siobhan Finneran), hopes for a miracle. Fulcher makes difficult decisions, like choosing to shadow a suspect instead of instantly arresting him; he presumes this will lead them to an alive Sian, while his superiors expect her to be dead. Most of all, he improvises in a tense interrogation sequence: a moment that, over time, will define his career. Some may view his thinking – as a father, not a hardened cop – as a careless mistake, while others may appreciate it as an act of inherent humanity. In a way, the series is a sadder, less revolutionary version of Clint Eastwood’s Sully, where Tom Hanks played the heroic American pilot who successfully landed an airplane in the Hudson only to be hauled to an National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) hearing about suspected “pilot error”. His employers look at him as a defaulter; the passengers look at him as a God. Sometimes, the line is blurred between the two, and it’s the Captain’s self-doubt – or lack of it – that pulls focus. The film exaggerates the close-mindedness of the NTSB, but A Confession looks at PACE (Police and Criminal Evidence Act) with a similarly critical but less sensational gaze. It doesn’t forget that, in the end, it’s always about the victims and survivors. In the end, the hero is often relegated to the epilogue of history.

Perhaps both an advantage and disadvantage of a true-crime series based on real life with a clear perspective (Fulcher’s book) is that it can’t position for dramatic effect. Every time we anticipate a twist or a red herring, the very next scene reminds us that life is less flashier than fiction. It almost feels like every other character interrupts the rhythm of a thriller – which is, also, the point of the protagonist’s bittersweet journey. This can get gruelling to watch as a viewer, but it certainly informs the experience of watching the story as a person. The first three episodes feature the manhunt, but it’s the next three that straddle a cultural moment more complex than a simple conviction. The aftermath is murky, and evokes the kind of unrequited rage usually reserved for a downtrodden citizen. It’s an art of sorts, to hint at a faceless system that closes ranks at the first hint of media scrutiny.

Fulcher isn’t exactly a character from a Ken Loach film, but the fact that he has a sense of agency makes him both a rescuer and a victim. His ambivalent relationship with authority, for instance, is established early on. The series opens with Fulcher secretly meeting a suspended colleague who is under investigation for sexual harassment. He isn’t supposed to be meeting this man, but Fulcher breaks protocol to understand his agony. The man doesn’t trust the system, and he mentions he has no other life except policing – a trait that, soon, will be reflected in Fulcher’s own journey. Later on, even when Fulcher visits the homes of stricken families, his empathy isn’t overtly apparent. But Martin Freeman twitches and moves like a man constantly torn between honour and duty. He observes the broken mothers, the brutal consequences, and somehow also manages to channelize the vulnerability of an officer who knows he’s crossing the line. His performance almost justifies one of the parents’ (Imelda Staunton) unwavering investment in his story despite her own loss. At first, she looks like a character forced by the script to highlight Fulcher’s righteousness. But it becomes apparent that she is fighting for him as if she were fighting for her own lost daughter – for purpose, hope and dignity long after they’re extinguished.

More than once, I was reminded of Freeman’s John Watson in Sherlock’s The Empty Hearse – where his character is grieving the absence of his old friend, before struggling with the idea of his sudden return. It’s a complicated portrait of a man whose masculinity recedes into the background, which is why he adopts physical traits – a moustache in Sherlock, silence in a town of lost girls in A Confession – to retain a sense of identity. For an indecisive person like myself, who dwells on the “what if” and “should I?” longer than normal, watching someone like Steve Fulcher pay for being decisive is akin to watching a horror movie. And for an Indian like myself, who is often exposed to a culture of police brutality and staged encounters, watching the police force prosecute their own is akin to watching a dark fairytale. 

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