There’s been a bit of a wave of television shows recently that have left me feeling conflicted. On one hand I can see that there’s a lot about them that’s worthy, often the acting and the cinematography. And yet watching them week to week turns into a chore and my reviews end up being more frustrated and critical than gushing and impressed. You’re unlikely to see a review of Top of the Lake on this site, because I’ve not summoned up the motivation to watch beyond the 2nd episode. At just four episodes long, I made it all the way through Southcliffe, but sadly the show it most reminded me of was Les Revenants – grey, bleak, too subtle and ultimately unsatisfying.
Southcliffe is a series that hints at things, very few characters say things outright and the audience is left to fill in big gaps by themselves. I was rather expecting the fourth and final episode to wrap things up a bit neater, to confirm or deny categorically some of the implications, but instead things were left even more unsettled. Maybe that’s to some people’s tastes, but it’s the kind of thing that I find very frustrating. If I want to write the story myself, I’ll do so, but given an astonishing lack of talent in that area, I’d rather leave it to the professionals. To me, if a film or series leaves me uncertain about motivations, or confused as to whether something did or did not happen, it’s incomplete.
I frequently found myself confused while watching Southcliffe, and I was watching it properly with my full attention for once. But between the jumping timelines, the complete lack of diversity in the cast and the monosyllabic grunting of many of the characters, I often didn’t know when I was, and who I was with. It felt like the writers/editors had a few different ideas about the structure but didn’t stick with any of them. From the first episode I thought that the whole series would bounce back and forth between pre, during and post-shooting timelines, interweaving everyone’s stories. But then the other episodes switched more to a focus on specific characters, and telling their entire stories in isolation. But there were still elements of other stories and time-frames woven in. Either idea could have been an incredibly powerful way to tell the story, but without committing to anything, it was just a mess.
If I’d written this review before watching the final episode, I think it would have been a lot more positive. I’d certainly have spent more time gushing about the wonderful (if mumbly) acting, the film quality cinematography and the challenging issues being investigated. however by not tying things up, by leaving so many characters unstudied, stories with beginnings or middles or ends but never all three, and by failing to make any sort of in-depth comment on the issues the final episode dangerously undermined the rest of the series.
It’s possible the series could have benefited from being more brutal. The violence is almost entirely off-screen, it’s almost coyly hinted at and implied rather than seen; for a series about an incident described as a “bloodbath” there is almost no blood. Many of the emotional responses are also rather on the stiff upper lip side of the scale. Everything is very clinical. I’m not saying I want a Quentin Tarantino exploitative horror show, but by keeping everything so detached it deadened the emotional impact for me. Each episode was preceded with a warning about the strong content, but I didn’t feel it was that bad. Obviously if you’ve got a personal connection to this kind of incident, it will be very difficult, but the same could be said of any episode of Casualty. At no point did I feel particularly shocked, and at no point did I reach for the tissue box, which given that I’ve been known to sob uncontrollably at adverts, is rather telling.
I think Southcliffe was trying to be something special, to tell a difficult story in a new way and while I admire its ambition, I don’t think it succeeded. By striving for greatness, I think it also missed the escape road for ‘good’, I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who disagree, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it appearing on awards lists later in the year. But for me, I was utterly underwhelmed.
Southcliffe is available on 4OD for a couple of weeks and on dvd