A thriller series with a crucial twist
Starring Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan
Stereotypically, a thriller’s narrative tension hangs off the power of the unknown. The uncertainty of where the threat lies and what their next move may be; the unpredictability of an enemy with a blanked-out face. The Fall‘s narrative conceit immediately provides us with the foreknowledge of exactly who the serial killer is, even before Belfast’s police force have even cottoned on to their actions, and yet the result is no less nail-biting.
DSI Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) is brought from Metropolitan Police to Northern Ireland to review an active murder investigation that has taken longer than 28 days. Pretty soon, however, Gibson is able to link that murder to a seemingly unrelated one which sets PSNI on the hunt for a serial killer, with Gibson desperately trying to get into the mindset of her prey.
Meanwhile, Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan) is a devoted family man and bereavement counsellor who, in his spare time, stalks young professional women with brown hair and follows their movements such that he can break in and strangle them to death, then wash them and stage them to take pictures of for a) his own personal record and b) homemade necrophilia porn.
The intrigue of the show comes not from “who is the killer”, but rather the cat-and-mouse act between Gibson and Spector. It’s getting to grips with not just the particulars of how Spector will be found out, but also wondering exactly what compels him to these acts – the terror of a seemingly normal, respectable family man harbouring a dangerous secret underneath, that not even his devoted wife is aware of. There’s a particular thrill in seeing Stella riddle her way through the clues that Paul has left behind and lead her closer and closer to his identity, peeling back the layers and communication in what would otherwise seem random or uncalculated. There’s a sense of both of them toying with each other, a perverse fascination emerging between the two, as she tries to goad and poke him and he does the same in return.
The show does not shy away from the parallels between the two characters, but rather revels in it. Both Gibson and Spector are icy and detached, as well as obsessed with appearances: Spector maintains his image as a family man, and is attracted to very particular women, while Gibson is fastidious in her professional demeanour. Where Spector is rough, with his dark hair and beard, Gibson is soft and bright, always brilliantly clean and dressed in silk blouses and bleached tresses. Paul hides in the shadows, cloaked in darkness, unkempt and rugged, with rage burning in his eyes, while she is poised and refined, though the intensity within matches his. Stella swims; Paul jogs. Stella is sexually liberated and empowered, ricocheting from attraction to attraction; Paul gains sexual gratification through the ultimate subjugation of women in murder, while also keeping up life as a devoted family man.
As the series progresses, the circle inevitably closes in around Spector, as Gibson gets closer and closer to unveiling him. The tension is maintained throughout, and while the audience certainly does not root for Spector, there’s something incredibly compelling about the chase: the duality of hunter and hunted, and the way the power continues to jolt between the pair; both of them becoming increasingly obsessed with each other. Even though the final series hews slightly too far away from the Stella/Paul dynamic that fuelled the first two outings to establish and build the greater world of The Fall, it still provides a definite, if not satisfying, conclusion to the saga.
Both Anderson and Dornan are electrifying and magnetic in their respective performances. As written, Stella Gibson could be dreadfully generic, but in Anderson’s hands she is made to be so much more: a driven, high capable and intelligent woman who is highly secure in her own sense of self worth and esteem, there’s never any sense within the narrative that she is not as capable as her title suggests. Her word and authority is always accepted and never challenged, and Anderson ably communicates this through her performance. There’s never any apology or condemnation for the way that Gibson is both able to be brilliant at her job, and also sexually empowered. Anderson holds Gibson with such elegance, poise and class, yet there’s always a sense of something more powerful, more animalistic and base coursing through her in what drives her keen eye towards justice. A vulnerability that shines through at rare moments, where you feel the column that she’s balancing on start to shake at her foundations.
Dornan, strangely, probably has the easier part, as Spector is written to be much more nuanced than Gibson is afforded narratively, though his performance is just as accomplished. There’s a shift and a duality to how Spector compartmentalises his existence. A tenderness within his demeanour and facial expression which is completely stripped away and lost when he is engaging in his murderous pastimes. Strangely, there are times when he almost appears sympathetic, and wounded, and his façade is just as apparent as Gibson’s is. The way that Dornan depicts Spector’s walls breaking down through a series of facial ticks is truly unsettling, as the true rage that compels him spills forth under pressure and scrutiny.
There are lots of brilliant performances in The Fall that make it successful, but every single one of these is almost unnecessary when faced with the fiery tour de force of Anderson and Dornan: a thrilling supernova that the audience cannot take their eyes away from and eclipses everything else.
Ultimately, there’s a quiet terror in the idea that a seemingly ordinary and friendly father and husband could be the front for something much darker and much more sinister, existing in the world mere metres from the audience, and it’s this primal fear that The Fall feasts upon.
The Fall is available to stream in its entirety on Netflix.