Marcella review – Anna Friel thriller doesn't shock like it used to

ITV’s troubled, amnesiac detective is back – deep undercover in Belfast – but the credulity-stretching twists are just too much this time around

If ever there is a “previously on …” to look forward to, it would be Marcella’s (ITV), if only to see how much they could pack into a single recap. The third season of the largely ludicrous crime noir begins with Marcella, a former-ish detective (Anna Friel, often in the bath), deep undercover in Belfast. She has assumed a new life as Keira Devlin, which she is able to do, you may recall, because she is supposed to be dead, having cut her own mouth open with scissors at the end of the last season in one of her violent fugue states, after learning that she was responsible for the death of her baby daughter. That is the short version of events, anyway.

In Belfast, Marcella/Keira is struggling to tell the difference between the two. She is attempting to embed, with the emphasis on bed, herself within the Maguire family, who live a kind of Downton-meets-Top Boy lifestyle, running the organised crime scene in the city and beyond. The fugue states seem to have disappeared without a mention, though maybe they are saving them up for one big blackout. Keira is shacked up in a nice house, with a nice car and a nice boyfriend, Lawrence, who does the accounts for the Maguires, while sneakily helping himself to a slice of the profits.

Crossing a family like the Maguires is not a wise move. They are led by Katherine, played with expert froideur by Amanda Burton, taking the cold matriarchal role that Niamh Cusack ran with in season one. As is often the plot in gritty dramas, Katherine has funded a big new housing project on the estate where she grew up, no doubt as a front for some of the family’s more gruesome methods of earning a living. She does not trust Keira one little bit, no matter how far she goes to prove herself. Frank, who is overseeing Marcella’s new posting, is appalled at some of his officer’s less-than-conventional methods. “That breaks every rule in the book,” he tuts. “Like using a presumed dead cop to go undercover?” she fires back, to which the obvious answer is, well, yes, especially one who might forget what she’s up to at any second, when the family being targeted knows she was once a police officer, when Belfast is really not very far away from London, and when that blond wig isn’t fooling anyone.

Katherine has a more immediate problem to deal with, however, in the form of son-in-law Bobby, who is both desperate to prove himself and a catastrophe magnet. Bobby looks after the docks, which is fine until a truck full of bodies exposes the Maguires’ human trafficking operation. While on a trip to London, Bobby blows off a little too much steam and gets himself tangled up in the political establishment in the most unfortunate of ways. Who is sent to investigate that particular upset? Why, DI Rav Sangha, of course, last seen tied up in the bogs by Marcella in one of her “now, where was I?” states.

If it’s a coincidence then it’s a hell of a coincidence, and the credulity-stretching twists really are starting to strain at the edges. Marcella just about got away with some of its more fanciful storylines because it was so ridiculously over-the-top. It has always traded in bleak and vicious shocks and there are plenty of those in this trigger-happy double bill, but they don’t quite work like they did. It is almost as if they have decided to try to out-grim the child-killing from last time, and have chucked everything at it in the hope that something else horrible sticks. A 13-year-old heroin addict? Beating someone to death with a champagne bottle? A pervert masturbating in the attic?

It was always divisive, but I was quite fond of its previous outings, though fond seems an odd choice of word for a show that is so relentlessly violent and humourless. Partly, I think, it was because it was one of the most enjoyable shows to watch people watching on Gogglebox, to see the audience squirm at some of its more eccentric plot twists. On the basis of this opener, however, it all seems a little done, which is a strange flaw for a series about a violent amnesiac detective who is supposed to be dead. Of all the shows that might suffer from a sense that you have seen it before, Marcella, surely, should be one of the less likely candidates.


Rebecca Nicholson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Marcella review – Anna Friel returns in the delightfully tonto crime drama
As the uncoplike cop who has blackout episodes, Friel battles utter ludicrousness with the odd curveball from the real world – while the score deserves a show all of its own

Sam Wollaston

20, Feb, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Alex review – a pitch-black thriller with a hero so dark it’s hard not to like him
Channel 4’s Scandi noir offering is fairly standard fare, but at its heart is a gripping portrayal of a very bad cop in an impossible bind

Tim Dowling

26, Sep, 2018 @11:05 PM

Article image
Vienna Blood review – so much like Sherlock it seems like a spoof
This fin de siècle murder mystery about a maverick detective and his doctor sidekick is laughably Holmesian – but enjoyably absurd

Emine Saner

18, Nov, 2019 @10:30 PM

Article image
Save Me Too review – a gripping thriller with emotional heft
Twisty plots and tough subject matter come together, as Lennie James’s excellent drama about a father’s quest to find his missing daughter returns

Rebecca Nicholson

01, Apr, 2020 @9:00 PM

Article image
The Capture review – chillingly real thriller or utter bobbins? Let's check the tape
A soldier is caught up in something much bigger than first suspected in a twisty if lacklustre drama about deceit, delusion and video fakery

Lucy Mangan

03, Sep, 2019 @9:00 PM

Article image
In the Dark review: a thriller that’s just the right side of formulaic
The BBC’s new crime drama doesn’t break the mould with its themes of corruption, lies and unwanted pregnancy - but its dark strands still draw you in

Sam Wollaston

12, Jul, 2017 @5:00 AM

Article image
No Offence review – like having Paul Abbott hurl body parts at you
You might not have much idea what’s going on in the return of this blackly comic Manchester cop drama, but you’ll have a good time anyway

Sam Wollaston

05, Jan, 2017 @7:09 AM

Article image
Marcella review: skilful Scandi noir comes to London – knitwear and all
Anna Friel picks up Saga Norén’s mantle in this new show written by The Bridge’s Hans Rosenfeldt. It gets off to a promising start, despite a few clunky crime drama cliches

Emine Saner

05, Apr, 2016 @6:20 AM

Article image
Strike: The Silkworm review – necrophilia, cannibalism and literary London
A warm welcome for the return of Robert Galbraith’s lugubrious gumshoe Cormoran Strike, investigating the murder of a failing novelist

Sam Wollaston

11, Sep, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
Strike: Lethal White review – daft, dark hokum from JK Rowling
Believability is not the strongest element of the latest adaptation of the author’s private detective series – but when has that ever been a prerequisite of TV crimefighters?

Stuart Jeffries

30, Aug, 2020 @9:00 PM