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‘The Accident’ Review: Hulu’s British Drama Is an Unforgiving, Relentless Look at Family Tragedy

Jack Thorne's latest series, starring Sarah Lancashire and Sidse Babett Knudsen, looks at how the public aftermath of a disaster can lead to dehumanizing results.

The Accident -- "Episode 2" -- In the aftermath of the tragedy, Polly worries that Iwan might be hiding something. Angela gathers the families to fight for justice, and as Harriet faces questions at work, her assistant and lover, Tim, acts to protect her by leaking information that drives a wedge through the town. Debbie (Genevieve Barr), Polly (Sarah Lancashire) and Iwan (Mark Lewis Jones), shown. (Photo by: Warren Orchard/The Forge/Hulu)

“The Accident”

Channel 4/The Forge/Warren Orchard

It’s not that anyone is especially happy in the opening chapter of “The Accident,” but as the new four-part series progresses into a morass of dehumanizing corporate nightmares and horrific tales of physical and emotional trauma, it’s enough to make you appreciate the brighter prologue of this tale set in the fictional coastal Welsh town of Glyngolau.

As with many aspects of creator Jack Thorne’s latest gutting TV drama, premiering Friday on Hulu after airing on Channel 4 last month, longing for any sort of relief and finding precious little is largely the point. To tell a community-wide story of tragedy and malfeasance, Thorne and director Sandra Goldbacher offer a relentless portrait of crisis that’s oppressive by design. That emotional vice grip is extremely affecting at times, but the more the show relies on recreating a feeling of emptiness, the more it gets what it’s going for.

That unassuming opening, of the people in Glyngolau prepping for a town-wide fun run, quickly gives way to an unforeseen disaster. Rebellious teen Leona Bevan (Jade Croot) leads a group of friends into a construction site, intent on putting a literal and figurative stain on the local crown jewel building development personally championed by her councillor father Iwan (Mark Lewis Jones).

While they’re inside, a mysterious explosion then leads to multiple deaths, and the aftermath of the resulting collapse intertwines the lives of the family members left behind. Leona’s mother Polly (Sarah Lancashire) becomes the reluctant face of the movement seeking retribution from the construction company that was heading up the project. Along with other mothers and wives, including Angela Griffiths (Joanna Scanlan) and Debbie Kethin (Genevieve Barr), she weighs her own options as the company head Harriet Paulsen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) plots out her own defense.

Understandably, among the victims’ families, there’s a lingering sense of mistrust. Some parents are grieving family members who have passed, while others face difficult post-hospital home care situations. Finding justice for what happened eventually comes with trying to put a price tag on their own suffering.

Thorne organizes these four episodes as pieces in an ever-hovering mystery. The incremental momentum toward finding answers, complete with a time jump, offers some understanding of who these individuals are. Most of the series’ attention is wrapped up in untangling what’s happening in the moment rather than looking at who the people of Glyngolau are or how they’ve been changed. As if dealing with community-wide loss isn’t enough to contend with, a few of the central characters are given parallel personal horrors to contend with as their lives are crumbling around them.

The Accident -- "Episode 1" -- Polly Bevan is a devoted mother and loyal wife to local politician and leader of Glyngolau Council, Iwan. Disaster strikes their town when a construction site collapses, killing a group of children. Only PollyÕs daughter, Leona, survives. The town, including PollyÕs close friends Angela, Greta and Debbie, mourn the deaths of loved ones. Polly directs her anger at the Kallbridge DevelopmentÕs projectÕs leader, slick executive Harriet Paulsen. But as the dust settles PollyÕs shocked to realise it might be Leona who gets the blame. Polly (Sarah Lancashire), shown. (Photo by: Warren Orchard/The Forge/Hulu)

“The Accident”

Channel 4/The Forge/Warren Orchard

As the series progresses, the circumstances tying some of these central individuals become even more linked. It culminates with a handful of courtroom sequences that try to offer some sense of triumphant catharsis — whether purposefully empty or the result of the previous three hours’ story, there’s an ennervated feeling to much of “The Accident” that makes it hard to respond to it as anything other than a drawn-out grief exercise. Each development in the story is a reminder that their suffering is still there, without really knowing what to do with it.

Thorne has spoken about drawing on the real-life parallel of the tragedy at the London-area Grenfell Tower, where a structural fire lead to over 70 fatalities. That disaster, made worse by improper construction practices, is still the subject of ongoing inquiry and has become a focal point in U.K. discussions around regulations and public housing.

When it feels like Thorne is drawing on those real-life parallels, there’s some real strength in “The Accident.” Showing a marked contrast between the cushy, sanitized corporate office setting and the day-to-day life of the Glyngolau residents only underlines the disconnect in how they see adequate justice for what happened. The cynical PR spin trying to work against spontaneous, impassioned community response is a cycle familiar to anyone who’s seen activism play out in a public sphere. The more manufactured elements of how this story plays out — affairs, withheld testimony, tabloid curveballs — only serve to a draw a line where the lived-in environments end and the cheaper shortcuts begin.

Fortunately, this cast is more than capable to handle either side. Knudsen brings quiet internal conflict to a part that could easily be dotted by invisible, giant currency-shaped eyeballs or typical corporate overlord archetypes. Balancing a family filled with impossibly difficult obstacles, Lancashire turns Polly’s search for meaning into a performance that embraces the ambiguity of many stages on the journey. The Glyngolau survivors all face a certain physical toll that translates on-screen, even when those telling the story don’t always trust that pain to come through unadorned.

So maybe the exhaustion is the point, to craft something that if it doesn’t recreate the emotions of watching the young people of your neighborhood exhumed from rubble, can at least approximate it. Those looking for verisimilitude may find some in “The Accident,” but getting through to the conclusion, it’s still murky what all of that on-screen suffering services.

Grade: B-

“The Accident” is now available to stream on Hulu. 

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