Compelling for the sheer audacity of its premise and novel storytelling approach, this British miniseries begins so strongly that it pulls viewers all the way through, even though the last two hours prove a bit of a letdown. With a fascinating milieu and lead character — Mark Strong as Harry Starks, a homosexual mobster in the swingin’ 1960s — “The Long Firm” represents the kind of production that would almost never find a home on American television, all the more reason why it’s nice to have BBC America around.
Based on Jake Arnott’s novel and adapted by playwright Joe Penhall, this four-hour production follows the book’s unusual format, with each hour focusing on a different character who comes into the orbit of Harry, a ruthless con artist whose specialty is capitalizing on human weakness. Each of these four players (five in the novel) narrates his or her own segment, providing a different point of view.
The opening hour is by far the best, featuring Derek Jacobi as a British lord, Teddy Thursby, with a taste for young boys — an appetite that Harry satiates and then exploits. Desperate for legitimacy, Harry attempts to leverage Teddy’s title and connections, but the effort begins to go awry as the two enter into a shady land-grab deal in Africa.
Soon, Teddy realizes that he has entered into “some sort of ghastly Faustian pact,” a small example of the tart and intelligent writing peppered throughout.
That said, the subsequent hours don’t quite match the intensity of the first, from a B-actress (Lena Headey) Harry befriends to a small-time hood (Phil Daniels) from his past to a criminology professor (Shaun Dingwall) who becomes a pivotal player in the climactic chapter of Harry’s story.
Strong infuses Harry with such a sense of coiled, Bondesque menace (hey, not a bad casting idea at that) he’s scary even in repose, and the supporting performances — particularly that of Jacobi — are topnotch.
Harry’s story doesn’t play out in a linear fashion, with chapters spaced by a few years, which is perhaps less satisfying than it might have been; still, the narrative structure and unexpected turns combine to keep the audience off balance. The time lapse between installments also requires viewers, in essence, to fill in gaps in the character’s life.
More than anything, “The Long Firm” reflects the BBC’s willingness to explore terrain markedly different from what’s generally available on this side of the Pond, with the best of it characterized by distinctive voices that can only flourish by allowing writers considerable latitude. Not all of it, of course, will be everyone’s cup of tea, but even for coffee drinkers, it’s nice to have on the menu.