For a series that begins with a man jumping off the roof of a mansion, “Requiem” has a surprisingly steady build. Like the camera slowly creeping toward a mysterious figure in the forest or a room at the end of the hallway, Netflix’s latest British import (first aired in the U.K. on BBC One) is a six-episode blend of mystery, suspense, and horror that tackles a big idea on a small scale. Wrestling with identity, family, and what can unite a community, “Requiem” is unsettling for more than just the unexplained forces that may or may not be at work in this Welsh town.
The conduit for this journey for answers is Matilda Gray (Lydia Wilson), a cellist preparing for her latest high-profile bookings as a lauded classical performer. Then a jarring, unexpected family tragedy rousts her out of her metropolitan life and sends her on a quest to rural Penllynith for answers about some mysterious photographs.
Her partner on this trip is her pianist performance- and recording-partner Hal (Joel Fry). Together, the two of them push and pull each other across a town-wide search for answers and some resurfaced memories from Matilda‘s past. Matilda and Hal find their home base away from home in an old estate house that seems to have as many secrets as the town itself.
As their search progresses, they uncover more and more tiny strings in the story of a long-missing Penllynith girl named Carys Howell. With every new townsperson that the pair of outsiders meet, there comes a growing sense that some unseen force wants to keep hidden the true nature of decades gone by.
One of the more satisfying elements of “Requiem” is that this is a detective story led by amateur sleuths. Matilda and Hal have a vested interest in finding out how Matilda’s experiences tie into the collective history of Penllynith, but as musicians using intuition and not exactly professional means to hop from clue to clue, they’re subject to the pitfalls of romantic entanglements and more than a few complicating emotions.
Part of the “Requiem” approach is remixing a few classic tropes from atmospheric horror tales: a shower scene here, some eerie woods there, and more than a few mysterious mirrors. But there’s something about the way that creator Kris Mrksa and director Mahalia Belo deploy all these ideas. While some visions of dead characters do pop up from time to time, this is not your typical ghost story. With the rustling of a breeze or a room where you can almost feel the temperature drop by 20 degrees, there’s a specter that hangs over everything that’s more than just Carys’ fate.
Setting this story driven largely by atmosphere in a countryside helps provide a gorgeous backdrop for the mystery that comes with it. The ugliness of whatever happened to Carys, set against a lush verdant Welsh landscape is a familiar contrast, but no less effective here.
“Requiem” unspools the various details that tie Matilda into this story very carefully, but it doesn’t let the mystery sidetrack from the scene-by-scene development of how all of these characters interlock. A bartender at the local pub, a local police officer, and a grieving relative all step into this narrative as full individuals, even before it becomes clear where exactly they fall in the Penllynith web. Carys, gone for over 20 years, is still a bizarre unifying force for this town, but the show offers the audience the chance to know who these people are, not just where they fall on some unseen evidence wall.
The series also plays with the blending of reality and hallucination in a way that doesn’t seem corny, but true to the respective psyches of the people at the story’s center. Everything’s presented in a way that makes the audience question along with Matilda what it is that they’re actually meant to see. “Requiem” does tip its hand at various points, but not in a way that robs the occasional surprises of their power. All it takes is a scowling glance from across a pub from one of the town elders for anyone watching to know that Matilda is probably not going to like what she finds. That doesn’t make her various breakthroughs any less satisfying.
Wilson and Fry play the evolving nature of Matilda and Hal’s partnership in a way that feels true to how a great friendship is tested by outside trauma. They’re the shepherds of this story across multiple timelines and more than a few family trees, but their interactions, spoken and unspoken, help give some quieter moments of understanding amid escalating psychological turmoil. Of the many interweaving pieces in this dark Penllynith puzzle, Brendan Coyle emerges as one of the most welcome, playing retired policeman Stephen Kendrick with an understated charisma and a cold demeanor that somehow work together in every scene he’s in. Like so many other members of an able and talented ensemble, he takes a single defining trait and helps build a richer person around it.
Even as “Requiem” teases the presence of something supernatural working its way through the Carys saga, the more meaningful throughlines center on how tragedy can drive people’s determination or skew their perception of the world around them. One of Matilda’s conversations with a Penllynith woman shows how a collective tragedy can turn someone from a real person into a fictional idea that can’t ever be regained. In the absence of an explanation, a community’s struggle to reconcile someone’s death or disappearance can have a fundamental effect on how everyone lives their lives going forward.
And as is true in many a monster story, sometimes it’s humanity’s capacity for manipulation that seems the hardest thing to recognize. Faced with two alternate explanations for how Carys and Matilda’s stories connect, it forces the people swirling around both characters to confront which they would rather hold responsible: a shadowy force lingering just beyond a bedroom mirror or someone living right down the street. “Requiem” offers a few sure answers, but it leaves enough to the imagination to make it both an insightful look at human nature and a compelling piece of TV.
“Requiem” is now available to stream on Netflix.