British actress Juliet Stevenson is one of my favorite actresses – in a just world, she would be a huge star. An arresting and unconventional beauty with a vulnerability, director Anthony Minghella fell in love with her artistically and created the wonderful Truly, Madly, Deeply as a vehicle for her gifts. A gifted and inspired comedienne, she also is great in thrillers, particularly two British miniseries, 1995’s The Politician’s Wife and 2009’s Place of Execution. Stevenson is the central character in both films, being able to carry the intricate plots with the same charisma and talent that she displayed in Truly, Madly, Deeply.
In The Politician’s Wife, Stevenson plays Flora Matlock, the wife of a conservative member of Parliament. Flora is a soulful, intelligent political wife, similar to Hillary Clinton or Cherie Blair. Her husband, Duncan (Trevor Eve) is in the middle of a sex scandal, when it turns out that he had an affair with an ex-escort-turned-government-worker (Minnie Driver in an early role). Blindsided by the allegations, Duncan turns to Flora for her political expertise as well as to promote the image of a functional, happy family. Not only is she leaned on by her husband, but his political circle (which includes her own father), put pressure on her to put aside her feelings of betrayal and play the dutiful wife for the good of Duncan’s career as well as the Tory party. Initially told that the affair was just a one-night stand, she starts to discover that she’s been duped by all those around her, and quickly her hurt feelings steel into feelings of righteous outrage. She then carefully constructs an elaborate plot to exact her revenge on those who wronged her.
If the plot sounds eerily similar to the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky affair – all similarities are purely coincidental, as the 3-part film was released a few years before the scandal broke; all the players in that real-life tawdry mess should’ve popped a video of The Politician’s Wife to see how they should proceed. The film swiftly turns from a sad drama of a woman’s very public humiliation to a taut and frightening political thriller. Stevenson gets a meaty role as the vengeful Flora, and she plays the complicated role to the hilt. She’s able to portray the wide range of emotions Flora feels expertly – Stevenson is an expert at playing wounded, but she’s also fun when she’s being devious and duplicitous.
And as wonderful as Stevenson is, she’s ably supported by a cracker of a script by Paula Milne (who penned a recent, related flick The Politician’s Husband with former Doctor Who, David Tennant). Viewers are dragged through a dizzying maze of betrayal, hostility, and intrigue, as Flora goes through her personal hell while trying to figure out what to do about her impotent anger. And while some of the choices Milne includes are questionable (a gratuitous rape scene mars the viewing experience), audiences will be continuously surprised by the various turns that the plot takes.
The success of The Politician’s Wife, made Juliet Stevenson a popular go-to character actress. While she never headlined a major motion picture, she’s very much in demand for television drama. In 2009 she was cast in the procedural miniseries, Place of Execution, an incredibly well-written drama broadcast for Masterpiece Contemporary. Stevenson plays Catherine Heathcote, a documentarian who is putting together a film about the forty-plus year-old disappearance of a small-town girl. The detective in charge of that investigation, George Bennett (played by Lee Ingleby as a young man and Phillip Jackson as an old man), was initially supportive and helpful with Catherine, but then suddenly drops out of the film without explanation. Catherine cannot abandon the project and is dogged in her pursuit of the truth.
Written by Patrick Harbinson from Val McDermid’s novel, the film is broken up into two parallel mysteries: Catherine in the present day is trying to unearth why George suddenly pulls out of the film; in the 1960s, George is trying to figure out the disappearance of the young girl. Both George and Catherine are thrown into thick plots that may end up making their lives much worse. The truths that the two are seeking have the potential of upending their lives – and many around are warning them not to pursue their respective, elusive holy grails.
Unlike The Politician’s Wife, Stevenson has to share the action with an equally compelling character, Ingleby, who like Catherine, is on a journey. Interestingly enough, the most intriguing parts of Place of Execution are the passages set in the 1960s. The attention to period is expertly done, without it turning into goofy schtick – the markers of the time period are subtle and unobtrusive. Also, the mystery of the disappearing teen is a conundrum because expectations are constantly being defied, and the scripts throw misleading red herrings at the audience. No one in the village, including the girl’s family or even the police is above suspicion.
Unfortunately, for Catherine’s parts of the series, the plots are bogged down with some family drama as she’s dealing with a bratty and rebellious teen. It’s become an almost-obligatory trope that professional women in thrillers cannot be good wives or mothers and in Place of Execution, Catherine is no exception, as seen by her dysfunctional relationship with her sullen teenaged daughter. When the writing steers away from the maternal material, it improves mightily. Catherine is a spunky, resourceful woman, who’s foolhardy, yet brave, and is very sympathetic. Audiences will root for her when she starts piecing together her convoluted puzzle.
While not a whodunit, Place of Execution‘s resolution will remind many viewers of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. It’s an interesting way to tie up the mystery, though the script also allows for a somewhat far-fetched detail to emerge that beggars belief. Still, even with these minor debits, Place of Execution succeeds as a solidly entertaining yarn.
Fans of great British drama should look up The Politician’s Wife and Place of Execution. Those also interested in seeing some great work by one of the UK’s most accomplished and versatile actresses, should also give these films a chance.