3 out of 5 stars

I heard the name Jed Mercurio (Bodyguard), about its Northern Irish setting, and to coin a phrase from Mercurio’s other series, Line of Duty, the term “bent coppers”, and was instantly sold. Set in Belfast, four-part BBC crime drama Bloodlands, written by Chris Brandon and produced by Mercurio, follows the story of DCI Tom Brannick (James Nesbitt), whose investigation into a missing person linked to the IRA brings back painful memories of the Troubles during the 1990s.

The opening episode finds Brannick and Detective Sergeant Niamh McGovern (Charlene McKenna) investigating the disappearance of former IRA member Pat Keenan (Peter Ballance), whose present day case links to a series of unresolved abductions and murders from 1998. We later learn Brannick’s personal connection to the string of disappearances as his wife hasn’t been seen since. And when a cryptic photo is left at the scene of Keenan’s abduction, we learn this modern case is linked to the past murders and reintroduces ‘Goliath’, the uncaught serial killer deemed responsible. From here, the plot divides into uncovering the truth behind Keenan’s kidnap, while simultaneously revealing the links to the past. It’s an enticing start from writer Chris Brandon and, whether influenced by his producer’s previous own work or not, he captures the fast-paced narrative of Mercurio’s most famous shows.

The grey, wintry landscape of Belfast sets the scene perfectly for this bleak drama. There’s even a nod to the horror genre as we visit craggy, incongruous islands to search for bodies, with the farms opposite are unaware of the macabre scenes beneath the soil. The framing of the characters against the harsh scenery adds to the unsettling tone of deceit and disguise, with no glow of sunlight to break the oppressive atmosphere.

Nesbitt’s Brannick is aptly moody considering the setting and story. As a single parent forced to revisit his traumatic past through his work, one can understand his sombre mood. One of Nesbitt’s many skills has always been his cheeky charm and wit on camera, which has been synonymous with his roles over the years, notably as Adam in ITV’s long-running Cold Feet. It may not have suited the tone of Bloodlands, but his melancholic depiction of Brannick would have benefitted from some light to compliment the shade. Trying to steer clear of spoilers, episode 2’s twist promised an exciting character arc for Brannick, but my affection for him never overcame my suspicions. And even by the end of the four-part series, mild indifference towards him. I was surprised by my dissatisfaction in Nesbitt as the lead here.

In contrast, the series features a wealth of strong supporting characters, who are often side-lined by the developing plot. Charlene McKenna does a stellar job as DCS McGovern, a witty and intuitive counterpart whose instincts often lead to the greater discoveries in the case, such as the uncovering of the bodies buried on the lone island. Towards the finale, we sense her suspicion of Brannick, but this development is halted by the climactic ending, so we end up knowing very little about her personal life. It felt like a waste of her excellent portrayal.

The audience for Bloodlands may have little crossover with Derry Girls fans, but as one of those who’s seen both, it was somewhat amusing to see Aunt Sarah (Kathy Kiera Clarke) and Grandad Joe (Ian McElhinney) in starkly different roles. Clarke has arguably one of the show’s best one-liners as Keenan’s formidable wife, while McElhinney’s stunning portrayal as the grieving brother of one of the missing people helps solidify the heart of the story. Lorcan Cranitch also gives a notable performance as the “big boss” Jackie Twomey, who has his own past dealings with the IRA that are revealed as the story progresses.

With consistent references to the IRA, the Good Friday Agreement, and so forth, the plot does well to reference history without alienating those unfamiliar with it. Northern Irish history is an anchor for there story and helps connect the series to reality. I’m a fan of Mercurio’s work and believe his unique narrative style’s raised the standard for British police drama, making them more thrilling and marketable globally. However, the emotional component of Bloodlands falls short of the show he writes himself, and a desire to shock audiences overshadowed believable character development. It all contributed to a lack of emotional empathy for the characters.

However, I’m glad Mercurio stuck to his guns and produced a drama designed to have impactful cliffhangers experienced over consecutive weeks. As someone who felt the first two parts of the four-part series was stronger, the weekly wait encouraged my continued viewing. In the streaming age of entire seasons being made available to binge in a weekend, it’s a welcome novelty to be made to wait for the next development.

The fan in me so hoped for a crossover with Line of Duty, that I was genuinely excited to learn its sixth series immediately followed Bloodlands’ finale. Sadly, the dream wasn’t to be. But while Bloodlands didn’t have the cultural impact of Bodyguard, it ended on an intriguing enough note to warrant another series. And with the development of Tom Brannick, it promises a new angle on the story that should entice audiences back.


frame rated divider bbc

Cast & Crew

writer: Chris Brandon.
director: Pete Travis.
starring: James Nesbitt, Lorcan Cranitch, Charlene McKenna, Chris Walley, Michael Smiley, Jonny Everett, Susan Lynch, Ian McElhinney, Asan N’Jie, Lisa Dwan, Kathy Kiera Clarke & Peter Ballance.