Masterpiece Mystery! gets its summer season off to a white-knuckle start Sunday night with The Escape Artist, a two-part thriller (concluding on June 22) about a brilliant defense attorney whose life and career go off the rails. David Tennant (Broadchurch) stars as Will Burton, the top criminal lawyer in the UK, whose perfect record of courtroom wins has put him on the fast track to ‘’take the silk” as Queen’s Counsel. He even has a perfect family – vivacious wife Kate (Ashley Jensen, Ugly Betty) and young son Jamie (Gus Barry) — to round out the idyllic portrait.
Will’s cases often find him sparring with legal adversary Maggie Gardner (Sophie Okonedo), who is fed up with always coming in second to Will. What seems to be lost on both of them is that their cerebral legal games in the courtroom usually take a heavy toll on the victims, defendants and their loved ones.
Invariably, Will often winds up defending and getting off some characters who most likely should be behind bars (hence his nickname of “the escape artist”), but as he somewhat idealistically explains to anyone who questions him, “Everyone deserves a defense.”
Then, just as Will and his family are heading out of town to their vacation getaway, his bosses hand him the case file on Liam Foyle (Toby Kebbell), a reclusive bird lover who stands accused of the horrific torture-killing of a young female medical student. Liam is a self-confessed misanthrope, but he adamantly insists that he is innocent. As Will, on vacation, studies the file, he can’t help seeing that there’s a ton of compelling circumstantial evidence against Liam, such as how his credit card statements reflect that he was a frequent user of “extreme porn” websites featuring the kind of activity that figured in the gruesome and extended killing of the victim.
Once in court, however, Will grows convinced that Liam is being rushed to judgment, especially after the judge refuses to grant a continuance to allow Will’s DNA expert to complete his research. Based partly on that, Will is able to get the judge, in effect, to declare a mistrial on the basis of procedural error. Chalk up another win in Will’s column.
And then Will makes a tiny error in judgment, a small yet crucial misstep that sets into motion a series of tragic, violent events. Even worse, he finds himself compromised by the very trial strategies that once stood him in good stead.
That’s all I’ll reveal about this edge-of-your-seat suspense drama, which has a very satisfying quota of twists and even shocks. Tennant is sensationally good in a role that forces him to play things straight, with none of his trademark Doctor Who twinkle. Okenodo, who picked up a Tony Award just last Sunday night for her performance in the current Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun, is also good in a role that could read as a one-dimensional villainess with a different actress.
Among the other recognizable faces in the large ensemble of The Escape Artist are veteran Masterpiece character actor Roy Marsden as another member of Foyle’s defense team and Kate Dickie (Sansa Stark’s mad aunt Lysa in Game of Thrones) as a Scottish barrister trying to offer Will some urgently needed legal advice in next week’s conclusion.
It’s easy to see why The Escape Artist earned rave reviews when it aired recently in the UK, and the two 90-minute episodes should whet viewers’ appetites for more mysteries to follow under the Masterpiece Mystery! banner.