Very British and very adult, A&E’s terrific “Armadillo” calls attention to the fact that American telepics on the whole are rushed, edgeless melodramas. At three hours — and with some heavy accents — this BBC co-production isn’t likely to capture much of an aud, even when compared with the cabler’s only modestly successful recent original, “Shackleton,” but anyone who can wait it out will be rewarded with an intricate “programme” full of substance to burn.
Basic cabler financed “Armadillo” with the Beeb, which aired it in three parts last year, and the partners’ biggest coup was to get Almeida Theater a.d. Howard Davies to direct. His stagings of, among other plays, “The Iceman Cometh,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and, most recently, Tony winner “Private Lives” have generated suitable praise for their complex characterizations, a command of dialogue and an attention to actors.
That sure is the case here — James Frain heads a top-notch ensemble through the passageways of the mind, through layer after layer of love and loneliness. Based on his book, screenwriter William Boyd has down cold the tiers of a man, from the things he does to seek professional pats on the back to the lengths he will travel in order to kiss the woman of his dreams.
Frain is Lorimer Black, a tactful and kindhearted insurance loss adjuster prone to nightly panic attacks and visits to a sleep-deprivation clinic. After the opening scene in which he is walking through what appears to be a burned-out mannequin factory, looking like something of a hitman due to his dark glasses, a mysterious “bag” and his decision to sleep around, he comes across a hanging body.
Despite the creepy allusions, it’s eventually disclosed that Black is more simple than complex, a day worker who has no girlfriend and a strange family that he visits often but with eyes rolled. (Title comes from the way Black seems to hide from the world within a protective shield and a specific, centuries-old artifact he covets.) Mum is always in the kitchen cooking her worries away, and dad is mentally gone, a shadow of the person he once was who now doesn’t speak and watches cricket nonstop on a bedroom television. Things are made worse by his sisters, hangers-on who beg Black for a few hundred quid every now and then, and who never made an existence for themselves outside a small flat.
While trying to forget that body, Black finds himself in the middle of an insurance scam that reaches beyond what he’s accustomed to. The soon-to-be-completed Fedora Palace hotel is destroyed after a small fire started by a couple of subcontractors gets out of hand. Swooping in to buy the land is an unknown South American, and, since the city plot had never been on the market, Black starts to wonder how something so valuable could sell so quickly after an “unfortunate accident.”
At first just a normal path of research that involves a few shady characters, the purchase eventually uncovers a house of cards that reaches everyone at his employer, Fortress Sure. The possible culprits include stuffy CEO Sir Simon Sherriffmuir (James Fox) and George Hogg (Stephen Rea), a whack-job of a boss who spouts crazy adages and shows up at all of the wrong moments. Seemingly harmless but always holding the specter of unemployment over Black, Hogg is the antithesis of the voice of reason, someone who might know more than we think he does, and appears threatening and explosive.
Providing much of the comic relief is another colleague, Torquil Helvior-Jayne (Hugh Bonneville), a gregarious jerk-of-all-jerks who yells at waitresses — then asks them out — and invites himself to stay over at Black’s pad when his wife files for divorce. “Armadillo’s” wild man, Torquil comes across as someone with ties that run deep inside the company’s corrupt side, but whether he’s a willing participant is one of Black’s primary concerns.
Black, then, is the straightest arrow of the bunch who falls under some strange circumstances. To deal with his caving professional life, his most exciting outlet is Flavia Malinverno (Catherine McCormack), a jittery — and married — actress who pops up in one of Fortress Sure’s commercials. Certain that a meeting with her is destined since he saw her in a cab and then moments later on TV, he devotes his free time to tracking her down and trying to form some sort of bond.
With time to develop the story and its players, Davies and Boyd, a la Mike Leigh, highlight random events in order to establish Black’s normalcy. His art appreciation, his attraction to identity shifts (fake sideburns, rings) and his violent outbursts all seem unconnected until placed in the context of Black as a regular guy who simply has a weird side. To their credit, helmer and writer have done a sublime job at making everyone here completely believable despite oddball personalities, affinities and hardships.
To that end, the thesps are tops all around. Leading the charge is Frain, who has popped up occasionally in Hollywood fare (“Reindeer Games,” “Where the Heart Is”) while cementing his rep in more noble pics like “Hilary and Jackie,” “Titus” and “Elizabeth.” Playing Black as kind but a little disturbed, he turns in an ace perf as a suave looker with issues who gets taken advantage of until he just loses it.
Supporting troupe is strong all around, from the beautiful McCormack, whose role is written a bit thin but who radiates as a pretty face looking for a soft touch, and the always solid Rea, who overacts with zeal and malice. The pin-up of the group, however, is Bonneville, who takes a company man and turns him into a layered, almost manic creation; his interpretation of a terrible but fun-loving father-husband-friend is a joy to watch.
A very moody production is highlighted by James Welland’s rough-edge lensing that takes full advantage of England’s rainy season, the cigar-and-sherry inner workings of corporations, and London’s streets. Kevin Lester’s deliberate editing takes on an almost mesmerizing quality due to its vastly understated pacing — a welcome trait that Stateside madefors can’t seem to grasp.