The City and The City is like one of those noir thrillers where you’re not sure whether to take it seriously because – as lead David Morrissey explains in a gruff voice about the existence of the two cities, “Nowhere else works like the Cities – Beszel and Ul Qoma”, but how does he know? Because… (deep voice continues) “I’m a cop!”
Immediately, I was thinking of the spoof sketch in The Kevin Bishop Show from almost 10 years ago, on Channel 4. Think of “Gritty BAFTA”, and it’s that.
I’ve only seen the first episode so far, set in Beszel, which is like a mix of Germany and Russia, and feeling as if it’s set in an alternate ’70s as there’s no mobile phones, and CCTV is done with videotape, or is it an alternate dystopian future like a technologically-backward Los Angeles in Blade Runner 2049 with mixes of Philip K Dick and George Orwell thrown in?
A young woman has been murdered on Gunter-Strasz, but what spooked David down that way last time, which causes his boss to ask him if he wants someone else to take the case? The plot thickens….
Some elements feel more familiar amongst the confusion, however, such as how Morrissey, as Inspector Tyador Borlú (yet still speaking in his usual accent), is mismatch-paired with rookie cop Constable Corwi (Mandeep Dhillon, affecting an annoying Cockney accent), and while he’s very world-weary, she’s very sweary-mouthed, so for that, we feel in familiar territory.
However, where Orwell comes into it is with the mention of something called ‘Breach’, and posters that state, “Spotting Breach is easy. They look just like you and me”. There’s also Unificationists, aka spoiled kids who never grew up, and as Morrissey explains gruffly (so put his voice in your head), “they don’t get that the cities love hating each other. It’s what keeps us alive. Nobody loves Breach, but before Breach, there was only blood”.
And then… “Now, go and open a Santander 123 account”… No, he doesn’t say that here, but he does in that advert. I watch far too much TV. Other banks are available.
Anyhoo, as much as it looks cool, it’s just as confusing, and so far, based on this first episode, it does look a bit too arty, but I hope it does come together a lot more. Maybe it would’ve helped if I’d read the book, but the only book I’ve ever read in my life was Orwell’s 1984, and that’s only because my school forced us to. Aside from that, I’ll wait for the film/TV series.
That said, towards the first episode, you can see how things might open up as well as the reason for the title, so I’ll follow the remaining three episodes.
Like the recent Come Home, Collateral and a number of other dramas, it’s shot in a 2.35:1 widescreen ratio, and as much as I love that for films (and hate cropping movies, as anyone who knows me knows I have campaigned against endlessly), I do prefer a 16:9 ratio for TV dramas, although a ratio of somewhere inbetween of 2.00:1 has become the ‘in-thing’ ever since Netflix’s House of Cards started doing that.
I watched this without subtitles as it was a preview, but the dialogue isn’t always clear so I’ll be watching the rest WITH subtitles. I do, normally, anyway – mainly out of habit, but sometimes it helps in cases like this. Morrissey is the clearest to hear, but occasionally the style of language isn’t always easy to make out from Mandeep and a number of the supporting cast.
UPDATE ON WATCHING ALL EPISODES: I’ve now seen the rest of the series and without giving spoilers, I can say that episode 2 showed how their equivalent of Brexit was in full force, as Mayor Syedr was wanting Besz jobs for Besz works, and he was all about taking his country back.
The more I watched this, the more it felt like the world of the videogame Homefront, where the cities have been taken over by Kim Jong Il, as well as Tom Clancy’s The Division. To that end, The City And The City is often like watching a set of videogame cut-scenes and with that thought in mind, and whilst sinking a bottle of red wine, it made no sense but I did enjoy the visuals.
If you can’t understand some of the language spoken, it’s because some characters speak in the made-for-this-programme language of Illitan (which is often unsubtitled), the language spoken in Ul Qoma.
The only slight annoyance is that on the BBC iPlayer, when the Illitan dialogue is subtitled, they’re briefly covered up with the text: “In Illitan:” which should really be slightly higher up so we can actually read it!
About the drama, there was lots of cloak and dager stuff which got a little too twisty-turny for its own good sometimes and I’d need to go back and rewatch it to see if it makes sense.
Overall, this was pretty decent. Not great – since it often ties itself up in its own self-importance, but it’s certainly worth a watch. I was glad that I saw all four episodes, and wanted to stick with it to the end to see how it concludes. Naturally, David Morrissey is the same in this as he is in everything else, but if you enjoy watching him then definitely check this out.
It did give me a bit of a headache trying to follow it all, though. That said, I’d be interested in another series if that was one. How that would work is best left to your imagination. However, since I haven’t read the books, I don’t know if there’s another set of stories with some or all of the characters.
The City and The City continues next Friday on BBC2 at 9pm, and is available to pre-order on DVD, ahead of its release on April 30th. After broadcast, you can watch ALL FOUR EPISODES on BBC iPlayer for 30 days after transmission.
Overall Score: 6/10
Director: Tom Shankland
Producer: Betsan Morris Evans
Writer: Tony Grisoni (based on the novel by China Mieville)
Music: Dominik Scherrer
Inspector Tyador Borlu: David Morrissey
Constable Lizbyet Corwi: Mandeep Dhillon
Katrynia Perla: Lara Pulver
Commissar Gadlem: Ron Cook
Major Syedr: Danny Webb
Yolanda Stark: Morfydd Clark
Mahalia Geary: Andrea Deck
Mr Geary: Corey Johnson
Haco: Reuben Johnson
Naustin: Dana Haqjoo
Shukman: Cokey Falkow
Drodin: Tom Follows
Mikyael Khurusch: Michael Ryan
Ul Qoma Girl: Amelie Chantrey
Mrs Geary: Debora Weston
Immigration Officer: Buckso Dhillon-Woolley
Worker Priest Driver: Moey Hassan
Mikhel Buric: Dan Fredenburgh
James Thacker: Nathan Wiley
Oversight Chairperson: Rose Ackroyd
Reviewer of movies, videogames and music since 1994. Aortic valve operation survivor from the same year. Running DVDfever.co.uk since 2000. Nobel Peace Prize winner 2021.