When is an under-used protagonist not harmful to a mystery? When the show is “A Certain Justice” and the suspects prove even more engaging than the very compelling investigating officer. In a way, viewers may be grateful that this three-part mini gives tweedy Cmdr. Adam Dalgliesh (Roy Marsden) something of a break. After all, this is his 10th outing on PBS’ “Mystery!” omnibus, and, though he remains interesting, P.D. James provides plenty of other complex characters to draw in viewers.
The first episode opens with attractive barrister Venetia Aldridge (Penny Downie) dazzling a London court. Clearly guilty, scummy Gary Ashe (Ricci Harnett) is a bad seed if ever there was one; against all odds, Aldridge gets him acquitted. But while we’re duly impressed by Venetia’s prowess, we come to realize that though she’s smart, she isn’t well liked.
In fact, it seems that nearly everyone in her law office has a bone to pick with her. Pompous Drysdale Laud (Matthew Marsh) has just found out that Venetia is challenging him to be head of chambers. Bumbling Desmond Ulrick (Ian McNeice) says he doesn’t hold a grudge, but his brother committed suicide at a school run by Venetia’s father. Oily Simon Costello (Richard Huw), Desmond’s nephew by marriage, and phlegmatic clerk Harry Naughton (Ken Jones) fear for their jobs should Venetia wind up as their boss. Even her neglected daughter Octavia (Flora Montgomery), just home from boarding school, doesn’t much like Venetia — though by taking up with the dangerous Ashe, she gets back at her mum pretty effectively.
So it’s no surprise when Venetia meets her Maker in gruesome fashion. The only question — drum roll, please — is whodunit?
Fingering the murderer is a job for Dalgliesh and detective inspector Kate Miskin (Sarah Winman), and, were this an ordinary mystery, viewers’ attention would land on them. But James’ novel, very well adapted by Michael Russell, shifts the focus to the suspects, delving deeply into their messy lives.
As with the best of the “Prime Suspect” mysteries, this show doesn’t flinch from examining contempo social problems. Disaffected youth, prostitution, child abuse and issues of class are touched on and handled with sophistication.
Equally impressive is the claustrophobic urban mood set by Russell and helmer Ross Devenish. Lots of overheated rooms and narrow alleys lend palpable atmosphere; a nice contrast is achieved with some country scenes. Kevin Rowley’s lensing leaves nothing to be desired.
Thesps all deliver first-rate work, but Downie is especially fine in a nuanced portrayal. Harnett handles his psychopath duties with aplomb, and Montgomery turns in a convincing teen, balancing willfulness and naivete. In a supporting role, the superb McNeice is memorably smug.