A raw, inconsolable anguish cuts through the artfully scrambled layers of “Southcliffe,” an uneven but powerful four-part study of a small English village reeling from the all-too-believable tragedy of a mass shooting. Following his masterful 2011 debut feature, “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” director Sean Durkin employs the miniseries format to tell another bleak, violent story that drifts backward and forward through time, examining the brief buildup to horror and its prolonged aftermath from a multitude of telling angles. Unsurprisingly, Durkin has a trickier time processing an entire community’s grief than he did probing an individual’s trauma in “Martha Marcy,” but if the narrative imprecisions and nonlinear construction feel a bit less assured here, the performances nonetheless show a searing level of commitment that sustains this swift, absorbing 190-minute work from start to finish.
Well received in its airings in the U.K. before its recent North American premiere at Toronto, the Channel 4 production is the latest longform drama to plunge us into a small-town maelstrom of festering secrets and dangerous minds. The result feels cut from similar narrative cloth as the acclaimed British crime series “Broadchurch” and “The Fall,” as well as the high-profile recent miniseries “Top of the Lake”; comparisons may also be drawn with the “Red Riding” trilogy, another epic marathon of misery that, like “Southcliffe,” was scripted by Tony Grisoni.
But this is a tighter, more concentrated piece of work than its numerous forebears, and it achieves its considerable momentum at the occasional expense of narrative clarity; for every development that feels properly ambiguous, there’s another that seems merely glib or unexamined. Nevertheless, the drama as a whole has an integrity, vitality and depressing relevance that should resonate no less in the U.S. than in the U.K., whose own spate of firearms-related tragedies, including the 2010 Cumbria shootings and the 1987 Hungerford massacre, loosely inform Grisoni’s screenplay.
In the first segment, “The Hollow Shore,” gunshots shatter the calm of what initially seemed like just another gray, misty morning in Southcliffe, a fictitious market town (actually Faversham) located in the marshes of Kent in southeast England. Fifteen people are soon dead at the hands of Stephen Morton (Sean Harris), and most of this chapter tracks his activities in the days leading up to his horrifying rampage, as he cares for his ailing mother (Rita Davies) and tentatively befriends Chris Cooper (Joe Dempsie, “Game of Thrones”), a young soldier on leave from a tour of duty in Afghanistan.
The strange dynamic between Chris and former special-ops man Stephen, which rises several notches in intensity when they begin some impromptu military training, proves crucial to what happens next. If it’s never clear whether Stephen is spurred into violent action by shame, despair, postwar trauma or some mixture of the three, the most revealing explanation can be read simply in Harris’ eloquent performance, his haunting, dead-eyed countenance conveying the resignation of an individual worn down by life’s cruelties.
The second segment, “Light Falls,” shifts even more insistently between before-and-after timeframes, though it does so intuitively enough for attentive viewers to begin assembling the pieces of the puzzle. Among Stephen’s victims are Sarah Gould (Nichola Burley) and her two small children; they’re survived by husband and father Paul (Anatol Yusef), a local pub owner who was recklessly unfaithful to his wife, even on the night before the shooting. If the loss of his family seems a bit punitive in retrospect, there’s no such karmic explanation for the death of Anna Salter (Kaya Scodelario), a young woman who has the misfortune of crossing Morton’s path while out for a morning jog.
Making prominent appearances in the first two installments is David Whitehead (Rory Kinnear), a London-based reporter who grew up in Southcliffe and is sent back there to cover the tragedy from a personal angle. It’s an assignment he feels ambivalent about, and his long-buried resentment toward his hometown — alluded to in earlier flashbacks — finally oozes to the surface in part three, “Sorrow’s Child”: In no uncertain terms, David lets the people of Southcliffe know what he thinks of their meanness, their blue-collar ways, their xenophobia, and a tragedy that, in his mind, they have brought down upon their own heads.
But that furious judgment stands in stark contrast to Durkin and Grisoni’s uncompromising yet compassionate treatment of their characters, specifically their insights into the different ways people grieve. Anna’s father, Andrew (Eddie Marsan), tries his best to come to terms with his loss, while his wife, Claire (Shirley Henderson), retreats into a sort of rage-fueled denial, beyond the reach of consolation or pity. Paul, meanwhile, sinks deeper and deeper into guilt.
The final chapter, “All Souls,” unfolds about a year after the shootings, as Whitehead returns to Southcliffe to investigate a possible police cover-up regarding the true fate of Stephen, who was reported to have taken his own life. It’s by far the least satisfying of the four episodes, taking the drama in directions that strain interest and credulity, particularly concerning Claire’s actions as she desperately tries to keep some vestige of Anna alive. Still, if Durkin and Grisoni’s grim tapestry never effectively resolves itself, that raggedness feels true to the reality of wounds that will never heal.
The consistently excellent and emotionally forceful performances aside, perhaps Durkin’s greatest achievement here is a magnificently doomy sense of place. Shot in dreary grays and muddy earth tones by Matyas Erdely, the action unfolds against a flat, desolate landscape only superficially tamed by roads, fences, electrical towers and nondescript cottages. Victoria Boydell’s editing supplies a pulsing undercurrent of dread, doling out the tragedy in painful fragments over the long arc of the narrative; it’s as if the film, no less than the characters themselves, is fated to replay those terrible events on a continuous loop. Upbeat soundtrack selections, including the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” and Otis Redding’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” are used in bitterly ironic counterpoint to the story.