The Fall is a frustrating but engrossing thriller. With shades of Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs, The Fall tells the story of London detective Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) who travels to Belfast to solve investigate a series of murders. The serial killer is Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), a grief counselor and family man who seemingly lives his life in two halves: on the one hand, he’s a devoted father to two children and a loving husband to his wife nurse, Sally-Ann (Bronagh Waugh), and at night, he’s the obsessed murderer/rapist of young professional women around the city of Belfast. The Fall isn’t a whodunit, but instead the mystery lies in how Gibson will be able to solve the crime.
The Fall is a messy, complicated five-part series. It’s not for the faint-of-heart, as there are some disturbing and appalling scenes of violence against women. Like many of the procedural dramas on television, there is a creeping sense of misogyny in the film, particularly in the murder sequences – the victims are all beautiful, gorgeous brunettes, who after being murdered, are arranged artfully in the nude on their beds. And while we’re clearly meant to judge Spector harshly, the film seems to have it both ways: condemning misogyny, but also perpetuating it at the same time. Audiences are never given a straight, easy answer as to how the series’ writer, Allan Cubitt feels about his subject matter, or women in general.
And even though she’s a heroic protagonist, Gibson isn’t free of television tropes herself – namely that successful, professional women in thrillers must also close themselves from the world. Stella doesn’t feel the need to be endearing or friendly with her subordinates, and she thinks nothing of having a one-night stand with a fellow cop (who ends up dead). These qualities aren’t necessarily negatives, but they are subversive because Cubitt and Anderson don’t feel the need to make Gibson likable. But at the same time, it appears like Gibson, like seemingly ever other female cop on television, is unable to have long-term relationships. But Stella’s also an exciting character because she’s nervy, brilliant, and damn good at her job. She’s abrasive, but has earned the right to be, because she’s easily the smartest person on the police force.
But as interesting as Stella is, it’s Spector that’s really the fascinating character. Few series will ever try to make a raping serial killer sympathetic, or at least human. We’re not sure if Spector is a split personality, or what his motivations are, but it’s difficult to dismiss Spector’s humanity, especially in his scenes with his two adorable children. Also his job as a grief counselor gives him moments where he comes off as humane and personable. It’s easy and tempting to make serial killers into isolated ogres who hide in the bushes – what’s so poignant and frightening about The Fall is that Spector is so normal and appealing.
A big part of The Fall‘s appeal is Gillian Anderson. As she has shown in Bleak House, The House of Mirth, and Great Expectations, Anderson has proven herself a versatile and powerful actress. In The Fall, she skillfully portrays the mirthless Stella Gibson, imbuing the woman with a passion that simmers carefully and with precision underneath her outer layer of professional restraint. And as her nemesis, Dornan is magnetic as the frightening killer.
Most viewers will be appropriately offended by much of what they see in The Fall, as they should be. Images of sexually-exploited and abused women are far too acceptable on-screen – and The Fall, like much of everything else on television is also guilty of that crime. But at the same time, Stella Gibson is a warrior – a foot soldier in the war against misogyny. Cubitt expertly portrays the easy, casual sexism pervasive in law enforcement, particularly when it comes to victims of sexual crimes – often cops blithely make comments along the lines of women “asking for it” and others prop up the “Madonna/Whore” dichotomy.
The Fall is a compelling, disturbing, and infuriating viewing experience. The series isn’t exactly enjoyable, but engrossing and difficult to turn off (though during the crime scenes, viewers will probably want to turn away). And despite its grim subject, it’s still an addicting program to watch.