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‘Pure’ Review: Darkly Funny HBO Max Series Illustrates the Burden of Being Alone With Your Thoughts

HBO Max continues its run of quality international imports with this British series about a recent London transplant with a particularly intrusive imagination.

Pure HBO Max Library

“Pure”

Channel 4

Throughout “Pure,” Marnie keeps telling herself there’s something wrong with her. Regardless of the situation — a family gathering, a crowded Tube car, or alone in her rented walk-in closet — certain thoughts keep winding their way into her consciousness.

Even though “Pure” chooses an effective way to show how Marnie (played by Charly Clive) is beset by her own imagination — subliminal flashes of face-licking, wayward fingers, and strangers in throes — it’s a compelling series just as much for the rest of her story. In showing one woman’s tumultuous first few weeks in a new city, “Pure” is a solid case study in how to build a show from scratch.

The audience gets dropped in right in from the outset, starting with Marnie (a relatively recent college grad) already midway through an excursion to distance herself from the small Scottish town. After a disastrous anniversary for her parents — her erstwhile housemates — she decides to flee to London in an attempt to rid herself of the thoughts that won’t stop interfering with her everyday life.

Based on Rose Cartwright’s memoir, series writer Kirstie Swain and directors Aneil Karia and Alicia MacDonald find new ways to visually represent Marnie’s anxiety. It’s in the cutaways, but it’s also how Marnie feels in response to them. At times, you can almost feel the city encroaching on her as she questions how to diagnose what it is she’s experiencing, much less alleviate it.

Pure HBO Max Marnie Joe

“Pure”

Channel 4

“Pure” maintains a steady pace because it draws its cues from Marnie as a whole person, not just what she perceives as her problem. Yes, those thoughts persist throughout the season, popping in at times that are just as inconvenient for the plot as they are for Marnie. They dot her introduction to every new person she meets on her arrival in the city, whether it’s chatting up Amber (Niamh Algar), an alluring stranger at the end of the bar, or Amber’s roommate Joe (Anthony Welsh), who also catches Marnie’s eye and subconscious.

But “Pure” also builds on a staggering amount of chemistry among this entire new group of discombobulated Londoners. When they cross paths at a party, you can see how some of these mismatched social puzzle pieces fit together anyway. Even in the most awkward of character situations, there’s an ease in how this cast is able to get across those moments.

That two-way fascination lines up with Marnie as a protagonist. She’s sometimes outgoing to a fault, and it’s not difficult to see how each new character is drawn to some refraction of that energy. As Marnie quizzes herself over how exactly to reciprocate those feelings — often in a broad spectrum of physical responses — Clive manages to show that inner questioning as she’s sizing up each new interaction. It takes a talented performer to make someone stumbling over their own babbling, silence-filling oversharing sound natural. Not only does she pull it off, but she makes it so that when other characters around her start doing the same, it fits with her infectiousness as a character.

And it’s a charming ensemble, to be sure. Even with a more stubborn emotional exterior, Algar makes Amber’s own compulsive behavior feel relatable in her own way. After becoming one of the more welcome additions to the “Hanna” Season 2 cast, it’s fascinating to see Welsh’s charisma being used for something other than nefarious purposes. And for an old friend/roommate/de facto landlord character that starts off as more of a jokey counterpoint to Marnie’s gregariousness, Kiran Sonia Sawar transforms Shereen into a lived-in, indispensable individual by season’s end.

Pure HBO Max Marnie

“Pure”

Channel 4

Marnie acting irrationally gives the show some built-in leeway for some of her more drastic courses of action, most of which revolve around the place where she finds her first London job. Balancing so much elsewhere, some of the people at that workplace do feel like thin foils for Marnie, especially when the show does so much economical character work with other people who flit in and out of Marnie’s life.

The show is best when it’s anchored in Marnie’s perspective, but “Pure” does manage to expand its scope, catching glimpses of the sexual hangups and frustrations faced by Marnie’s potential romantic partners. Those sidebars don’t diminish the challenges she faces in approaching her often-fraught relationships with a “clear” mind. If anything, “Pure” emphasizes that everyone in this newly-forming web is wrestling with their own feeling of emptiness or inadequacy or barriers to intimacy. What really matters is what happens when those individual struggles get repressed and communication disappears. Watching “Pure” navigate those conversations where two people find strength in each other are just as much heart-to-hearts as they are brain-to-brains. Even if the chance for those conversations are set up by some convenient bits of narrative tidiness, their resulting interactions remain uncontrived.

Marnie has her momentary breakthroughs, but the show manages to remind her (and everyone watching) that with mental health, fixating on an unequivocal solution is a counterproductive approach. The show gives the space to let Marnie figure things out in tiny incremental chunks, even when a giant breakthrough might be easier to hang an episode or a season on.

In a cruel lack of closure, even though this open-ended first season gives a potential pathway for Marnie’s story continuing, Channel 4 has opted not to renew “Pure” for Season 2. In some ways, that fits with one of the show’s underlying theses: that you can’t simply declare yourself “fixed” or resolved, that life is often about dealing with the lingering and the immediate at the same time. Still, with a handful of incredible performances (headlined by Clive), a keen eye to the power of mental roadblocks, and the strength that can come with honesty, this season still stands on its own.

Grade: B+

“Pure” is now available to stream on HBO Max.

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