The first hour of National Treasure ends with a silent scene from Robbie Coltrane, who plays a fictional veteran television personality accused of rape and sexual assault dating back decades, all of which he vehemently denies. We see him in the shower from the waist up, water pouring over him. He’s overweight, his skins sags, and his body is wracked with sobs as he lifts his chin up slightly and bellows in an anguish we cannot hear. The credits roll and the scene plays backwards, undoing itself. And yet, no matter how much money Coltrane’s Paul Finchley pays or how many people he thinks he can convince of his innocence, this is a Pandora’s Box that cannot be closed again.
For British viewers, the Channel 4 miniseries will be linked to the real-life Operation Yewtree, a police investigation that uncovered and prosecuted systematic sexual abuse perpetrated by a number of now aged UK TV performers. “They think I’m Jimmy-fucking-Savile,” Paul laments, to address the elephant in the room. But for American audiences, who will be able to watch the 4-hour drama on Hulu, the case will more likely bring to mind Bill Cosby.
Though fictionalized, National Treasure often feels like an intimate portrayal of true crimes. Coltrane is perfectly cast as the larger-than-life Finchley, who is beloved for his comedy and charm. But there’s a bitterness to his personality, especially regarding his long-time comedy partner Karl (a nervously jolly Tim McInnerny) who has been knighted and recently received a lifetime achievement award (“You’re ‘anded’ to him,” Finchley’s daughter says to Karl). Still, Coltrane portrays Finchley as a man easy to love, even though flashbacks to his younger self (played by Trystan Gravelle) reveal more of a caustic personality. He has a steely but long-suffering wife, Marie (a powerful performance by Julie Walters, channeling Judi Dench) who forgives him his philandering so long as he is truthful to her. But has he been?
National Treasure is both gorgeously and savagely directed by Marc Munden, who often closely investigates faces betraying thoughts, hesitations, and imperfections. Coltrane is examined the most. Is he guilty? Can we tell just by watching him?
The series also deals with the fallibility of memory, and of choices made to protect ourselves. Finchley’s daughter, Dee (Andrea Riseborough), is a recovering addict with a poor memory, yet she tries hard to dig out the truth. Did her father once sexually abuse her babysitter while she was upstairs? Are the details she is remembering true, or do they hide something else? Or are they changed to protect something she did witness?
Riseborough, like the rest of the exceptional cast, gives an understated performance for material that could have called for something much bigger and more explosive. But her choice is the right one, as she — in a bored yet searching monotone — questions her parents and their choices, both regarding her relationship with them, her struggles, and the case itself.
Yet the most fascinating character is Marie, who keeps her protective layers wrapped tightly around her until she witnesses the testimony of the women, hears the fear in their voices, and can no longer trust her own feelings and memories. Though Finchley has paid for legal council that will tear apart the accusations and give the jury and the country what they desire — absolution for having loved Finchley, declaring that he is not a monster after all — the court verdict is almost beside the point. Marie, the other person who backed up his personal denial, is uncertain, which unmoors everything.
The very talented screenwriter Jack Thorne has created a deeply considered examination of Finchley that gives a voice to his victims as well. By following how the law twists a real experience in order to win an argument, truth be dammed, it’s depressingly real, as are the quiet moments where characters sit in silence, alone, lost in troubled thoughts as birds chirp cheerfully in the background. In many scenes, characters stand in shadow looking out windows or moving through reflections of light that only illuminate them in part — it’s a visual metaphor for how we all choose to hide or reveal certain parts of ourselves, sometimes to ourselves, as a way to preserve a certain image.
Image, as National Treasure shows, is everything, and informs everyone’s actions. Finchley is first held up as a monster because he’s famous and that sells papers, but then the public turns on the women, wanting to believe Finchley is not the person he’s been accused of being. He’s too beloved, his TV shows were so funny, watching things he created is a family tradition — all of these things work for him as he is put on public trial and, later, tried in court. “Whatever else I’m guilty of, I did not do this,” Finchley tells the court and the jurors with sincerity. Viewers eventually see the truth, but it comes at the most devastating possible moment.
There are weights and measures throughout National Treasure: How far did Finchely go? How much is Marie willing to let happen? How much does Dee remember? But there are two things we can know for sure. Finchley used his popularity, influence, and power to get what he wanted when he wanted it. That in and of itself is not a crime, but it can lead to one. Especially when we consider the second truth: that most of us hide more of ourselves than we dare to remember.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good – Devastating, engrossing, chilling
National Treasure will be available on Hulu starting March 1st.