The history of the British police movie is not a glorious one. Perhaps it’s because (for the most part) U.K. coppers aren’t allowed to carry firearms, which somewhat reduces the capacity for squib-happy action sequences. Or maybe it’s the lack of glamorous locations for said shootouts, which can hardly compete with Manhattan or L.A. But after Edgar Wright imported the cop movie to rural Britain with “Hot Fuzz,” we’ve seen a string of more straight-faced takes on the genre from the U.K., including the Jason Statham vehicle “Blitz,” ’70s remake “The Sweeney,” and the upcoming “Welcome To The Punch.”
Of course, you could take a different approach, a more realistic and unglamorous one, where not a single bullet flies and no car chases another. And that’s pretty much what “Blood” does. Executive-produced by Sam Mendes, adapted from a mid-’00s BBC series called “Conviction” by original writer Bill Gallagher (“Lark Rise To Candleford“) and directed by TV vet Nick Murphy (who made his debut with the silly-but-well-executed Rebecca Hall-starring ghost tale “The Awakening“) it’s a lower-key take on the genre that mixes procedural with Greek tragedy, and although it doesn’t work at every level, still packs something of a punch when it comes to the conclusion.
The Fairburns are a family of cops in an unnamed seaside town. Patriarch Lenny (Brian Cox) has long since retired, and is now stricken by Alzheimers, but in his better moments, he regales his sons Joe (Paul Bettany) and Chrissy (Stephen Graham) — who now work side by side in the same force — with tales of the good old days, when they could take suspects out to the islands and knock them about until they confessed. But for the most part, they’re happy — Joe is long and happily married to Lily (Natasha Little) with a teenage daughter (Naomi Battrick), while Chrissy is trying to convince the lovely Jemma (Zoe Tapper) to marry him.
But everything is disrupted when the body of a young girl is found, brutally stabbed to death, in a local skate park. The Fairburn boys, along with their introverted colleague Robert (Mark Strong) are on the case, and there’s an immediate suspect, a flasher-turned-religious convert named Jason Buleigh (Ben Crompton of “Game Of Thrones“). But the evidence isn’t quite enough to keep him in custody, and so one night, a drunken Joe decides to use the old ways, dragging a reluctant Chrissy along with him. But things get out of hand, and soon it’s the two brothers who are looking over their shoulders in fear of the law.
It’s a loaded and potent set-up, and Murphy ladles on the atmosphere from the off, with an eye for wintery imagery and watery landscape that serves him well. Despite some impressive lensing (courtesy of “Wild Bill” DoP George Richmond) though, the film struggles to escape its TV origins formally, feeling disappointingly small-scale for much of its running time. And it struggles to escape the tropes of the cop genre too, with some of the dialogue on the procedural side of things clunking in places (not helped by the somewhat anonymous support team behind Joe and Chrissy).
But the film’s also in it for the long run, using the first act to flesh out its characters, and letting them build organically over the next hour or so. And it helps that the cast that have been assembled are very strong. Bettany perhaps fares the least well — it’s good to see him in a proper role again, rather than in some Screen Gems nightmare, but there’s a slight sense of unease in the performance, at least in the early stages. But Graham delivers the latest in a string of excellent performances, vulnerable and easily led and clearly the younger brother, while Cox is as gruff and affecting as you’d imagine. The female characters are a touch underwritten, but Tapper (“Stage Beauty“) manages to make a real impression despite relatively meagre screen time. Best of all is Mark Strong — happily getting to break out beyond villainy, he gets the script’s most original creation, and gives it real depth, complexity and pathos.
And it’s these performances that give the film its power into the home stretch. The title is a clue that it’s as much a film about family loyalty, and digging yourself into a hole that’s impossible to get out of, as it is a thriller. And the cast — and Murphy — give it real heft, a stomach-churning power that’s less common than most of the elements, and it means that after the credits roll, it keeps ticking over in your mind.
Murphy sometimes over-eggs the pudding; one person crying in a fetal position on the floor might be excusable, but two simultaneously starts to feel like the film’s creeping into self-parody. And ultimately, it can’t help feeling like an above-average TV drama, rather than the Lumet-ish big-screen drama we had our fingers crossed for. But there’s also an unusual weight and depth of feeling to the film that makes it linger longer than most films of its kind — not least in the central performances. Not an unreserved success, then, but a smart, well-acted and well-directed picture that adds up to a little more than the sum of its parts. [B-]