You spend a lot of time looking at Robbie Coltrane’s face when you watch “National Treasure.”
The camera lingers on it often over the course of the four-hour miniseries, now available on Hulu, letting every conflicted emotion and moment of vulnerability play across his wide friendly features. It’s an intimacy that proves compelling at the beginning of the series, but by the end will leave you shaken. Because the more we learn about him, the less we trust.
Originally airing on Channel 4 in the UK last year, “National Treasure” tracks the story of a fictional scandal that feels awfully real. Paul (Coltrane) is one half of a beloved British comedy team who now hosts his own show and enjoys the adulation that comes with decades in the public eye as an entertainer… until he’s met with the accusation that years ago, he assaulted a young woman. That proves to be the thread which unravels the sweater, as the public turns against him and his loyal wife Marie (Julie Walters) finds herself the object of humiliation and pity.
“National Treasure,” on a narrative level, has the complexity of a “Law and Order” episode, but that’s not meant that as an insult; in fact, the way events roll out simply makes the journey from celebration to accusation to dismay all the more impactful. After all, we know this story (except for the ending). What matters is the telling of it.
There are plenty of elegant touches to the filmmaking — the score by Cristobal Tapia de Veer is fresh, unconventional and eerie, as are the closing credits sequences, which differ from episode to episode and add unnerving context to the action. Plus the shift in visual styles makes a big difference when we trip back in time; in the present, the truth seems murky, but director Marc Munden and writer Jack Thorne make the choice to utilize flashbacks that capture the past, unveiling what really happened all those years ago. This happens slowly over the course of the series, and the pacing of that at times drags, but it does mean that by the end of the series you know the facts — a luxury reality rarely offers us.
Coltrane is familiar to most people as Hagrid from the “Harry Potter” films (and yes, Walters is everyone’s favorite wizard mum Molly Weasley), but he’s demonstrated incredible range over the years. The 1990s detective drama “Cracker” (a personal favorite) especially stands out for how it captured Coltrane’s ability to take a fundamentally unlikeable character and dig out his underlying charm. With “National Treasure,” the challenge goes a step further — we see just how charming Paul is, but as the series progresses and the doubts around his quality character grow, it becomes possible to see the possibility of evil within him. Even during his most confessional speeches, his most tender moments, the monster lurks beneath the surface.
There are flaws here, such as the storyline following Dee (Andrea Riseborough), Paul and Marie’s troubled adult daughter. The way in which her issues complicate her parents’ lives is intriguing, but feels a bit unwieldy at times and slows down the middle of the story just when it could use some extra momentum.
That said, Riseborough makes a character who could feel like a cliché into someone damaged but alive. And while there are some tough scenes to watch in this series, watching Walters portray Marie’s silent devastation proves to be the toughest of them. Tim McInnerny also offers a steady and sympathetic presence as Paul’s longtime friend and partner in comedy, who shares his own bond with Marie.
As mentioned, “National Treasure” at times is not easy viewing, especially because in the aftermath of so many sexual scandals in recent years, calling the series timely is easy. Just this Sunday, “Girls” devoted an entire episode to a one-on-one debate on consent issues — and right now Bill Cosby is actually standing trial for decades worth of rape accusations.
But here’s the tragic truth: It’s not timely, because this story is always happening, the story of the powerful and their victims. And the nice thing about being powerful is that you don’t really need to care about your victims. Heck — you might not even know they exist.
This is the point central to “National Treasure,” and one that makes it important and vital as a reminder that when women speak, we need to listen. Not just “in times like these,” but always.
“National Treasure” is streaming now on Hulu.