Transnational borders are always interesting places, whether it’s the no-man’s zone between East and West Germany in a tense Cold War drama or the imaginary line between nations in the middle of an ocean or sea. The gripping joint Canal+/Sky Atlantic TV series The Tunnel starts with the discovery of a corpse in the access area of the Chunnel, the subterranean high speed train tunnel that connects England and France. But it’s not just a body, it’s the opening salvo in the terrifying campaign of serial killer and moralist Truth Teller, who uses an increasingly bizarre set of crimes to highlight facets of what he identifies as the moral bankruptcy of modern society.
The series takes place mostly in Calais, France and Folkestone, England, it ends up being a joint investigation of both English and French police, as ably headed by the troubled, womanizing Brit Karl Roebuck (Stephen Dillane) and the cold, emotionless French detective Elise Wassermann (Clémence Poésy). The crimes are troubling and often in the vein of the media-savvy sadism of BBC series Black Mirror, but what really propels this excellent drama is the interplay between the two detectives as things unfold.
The Tunnel takes place across ten one-hour episodes and should really be broken into two segments: The first seven episodes are about the crimes and investigation into the so-called Truth Teller, and the last three are, well, no spoilers. They’re a somewhat different, though definitely related story that is even more compelling as the net closes in on the culprit and the victims both. Indeed, my greatest criticism of the series is that the transition from the first section to the second isn’t sufficiently well explained within the story, leaving this viewer, at least, to try and puzzle out the logic of the story leap that transpires in episode 7.
Also featuring prominently in the story are Karl’s wife Laura (Angel Coulby), who brings a toughness and vulnerability to a difficult role, and Karl’s perpetually angry teen son Adam (excellent young actor Jack Lowden), upon whom much of the latter portion of the series rests. Unlike neat, clean detective shows where there’s a formulaic quirk, The Tunnel features two very different professionals who are haunted and troubled by their pasts even as they live their day-to-day existence.
For her own part, actor Clémence Poésy brings a splendid power and simmering anguish to her role as the emotionally shut down French detective Elise Wassermann. Much is made of her extraordinary memory, something she explains as “a house where I put specific memories in specific rooms to reflect upon later”, but that edifice is just as much a place to hide from the world as to understand it, and her unfolding backstory proves quite gripping.
No less excellent is Stephen Dillane as the philandering English detective Karl Roebuck. He knows that his womanizing has been a cause of pain for not just his previous wives but his entire family – and it’s a significant reason his son Adam is so angry all the time – but when the opportunity presents itself, his half-hearted “no” is all too human and understandable. We all make daft decisions that even at the time we know are wrong and can cause pain. But we do them anyway. Karl is perhaps the most easily understood character in The Tunnel, a man who takes his job very seriously both because he is serious and because it lets him sidestep the ugly mess of his personal life.
The behind the scenes view of The Chunnel was also fascinating, and the verisimilitude of the French speaking in French (with English subtitles) while the English speaking in English and the occasional challenges that presented the characters helped make the show one well worth your time and attention.
I was pulled into this series in a way that rarely occurs and binge watched all ten episodes in two consecutive nights. It was only with some self-discipline that I didn’t stay up super late and just blaze through all ten episodes that first night. It’s that compelling, and that tense. Highly recommended.
If you’re curious, The Tunnel is a remake of the 2011 Danish/Swedish series Bron / Broen, in which the body is found on a bridge between Denmark and Sweden.