Will Burton has a really good life: a beautiful wife, a great kid, a fluffy dog, a fabulous city apartment, and a picture-perfect country home. Unfortunately, Will the barrister also has a client who creeps him out. Him and us.
“I don’t like people very much. I’m not a nice person,” says Liam Foyle in a spectacular example of understatement.
Foyle has been accused of the brutal, calculated murder of a young woman. It’s Will’s job to ensure Foyle is not convicted, which he does; but he’s not happy about it. And that is about to cause a problem for Will.
The Escape Artist was created and written by David Wolstencroft, who also created and wrote the series we in the U.S. know as MI5 and that people in the U.K. call Spooks. If you know that show, you know Wolstencroft is a master at leading viewers in a particular direction only to reveal that they’d been holding the map upside down and backwards all along. And that’s about to cause a problem for me, because it’s nearly impossible to write about this two-part series on PBS Masterpiece Mystery without revealing spoilers—and you know we won’t do that.
David Tennant stars as Will Burton, a fundamentally decent guy who just happens to have made a career of helping guilty people avoid being convicted for their crimes. Although he does trot out the timeworn “everybody deserves a defense” argument to explain why he does what he does, Will’s not too sanctimonious about his motivation. The tangle is what appeals to Will: finding the loophole, the misstep, the wrinkle that will allow him to do what he does so well.
Thing is, Will has a conscience and it’s plaguing him more and more. After seeing what Foyle did to his victim (there’s little doubt that Foyle did the crime) Will takes no satisfaction in securing Foyle’s freedom based on a procedural technicality.
Sophie Okonedo plays Maggie Gardner, Will’s icy cold courtroom nemesis. She’s Number 2 behind Will on a list of top lawyers in the city, a ranking that does not sit well with her. Maggie is your typical tough, ambitious female character who, in this instance, manages to stay just this side of being cartoonish.
Toby Kebbell plays Liam Foyle—a bad guy—the living, breathing example of how well the criminal justice system functions. You could say that out of everyone in the story, he has the most faith in the law. It’s served him well.
You’ll recognize other faces, including Ashley Jensen (Extras, Ugly Betty) as Will’s wife Kate, Jeany Spark (Linda Wallander in Wallander) as his colleague Tara, Anton Lesser (who we’ll see again shortly in Endeavour) as Will’s boss, and Roy Marsden (known to me forever as Adam Dalgliesh from the dramatized P.D. James mysteries of years past) as another attorney.
The Escape Artist is a legal thriller—emphasis on thriller—that displays quite a few conventions of the genre. We have the successful lawyer whose perfect life is about to be upended. We have the creepy murderer with a thing for caged birds. And when a vulnerable woman at home, alone, at night, decides to take a bath you might find yourself shouting, “What are you doing?! Have you not seen Fatal Attraction?” (She can’t hear you. Believe me. I tried.)
Still... The Escape Artist crackles along, raising the stakes with each encounter. Don’t look for verisimilitude; this is pure escapism. You might anticipate some of what happens, but you won’t be able to predict it all. And that goes double for the conclusion, which airs on June 22.
Photos courtesy of © Endor Productions Ltd MMXIII for MASTERPIECE.
Leslie Gilbert Elmanis the author of Weird But True: 200 Astounding, Outrageous, and Totally Off the Wall Facts. Follow her on Twitter @leslieelman.
Read all of Leslie Gilbert Elman’s posts for Criminal Element.