TV Review: ‘The Escape Artist’

Masterpiece Mystery Escape Artist PBS

A summer trifle from “Masterpiece Mystery!,” “The Escape Artist” is a thriller without much in the way of thrills, but it wriggles out enough twists — and the pleasure of David Tennant and Sophie Okonedo — to lure an audience blessed with the patience to enjoy this kind of languidly paced crime drama. Delivered over two 90-minute parts, it’s one of those productions that dwells on the little things, like a handshake, while mixing courtroom strategizing with dollops of suspense. All told, it’s not a bad way to spend a couple of Sundays, despite falling below the Brits’ high bar in this noirish genre.

Written by David Wolstencroft and directed by Brian Welsh, the made-for features Tennant as ace (indeed, undefeated) defense attorney Will Burton, who, as a colleague admiringly points out, is the person you call “if you’re chained up in a safe at the bottom of the shark tank.” Alas, his latest client, Liam Foyle (Toby Kebbell), might just be the shark, accused in the grisly murder of a woman, and surprisingly cavalier about his defense.

The fact that Burton’s record stays unblemished is just the beginning of the story, which threatens to bring the case home to the attorney’s family (Ashley Jensen, of “Ugly Betty” and “Extras,” plays his wife) and sets Will in conflict with Maggie Gardner (Okonedo), another brilliant barrister with a chip on her shoulder regarding her professional rivalry with Will.

Given how much the narrative pivots on the unexpected, potential viewers would be well advised to avoid reviews that might violate the movie’s necessary spoiler-free boundaries. Yet suffice to say the legal jockeying and cat-and-mouse games are mildly juicy and suspenseful (thanks in part to Kebbell’s unsettling performance as TV’s latest deranged lunatic with a pleasant face), provided one doesn’t work too hard at seeking to decipher them.

While Tennant is cast in a different role within the judicial system (one that periodically forces him to wear those adorable wigs), the tone and pacing evoke a lite version of “Broadchurch,” the much-admired murder-in-a-small-town miniseries he not only starred in but will reprise in a U.S. version. And the actor brings a similar intensity to the process here, with a lot of pain and mystery behind those brooding eyes.

For all that, “The Escape Artist” amounts to “Masterpiece’s” version of a B movie. And it would take Houdini to turn it into much more.

TV Review: 'The Escape Artist'

(Two-part movie; PBS, Sun. June 15 & 22, 9 p.m.)

Production

Produced by Endor in association with Red Arrow Intl. for BBC and WGBH Boston.

Crew

Executive producers, David Wolstencroft, Matthew Read, Rebecca Eaton; producers, Paul Frift, Hilary Bevan Jones; director, Brian Welsh; writer, Wolstencroft; camera, David Higgs; production designer, Mark Leese; editor, Jamie Pearson; music, Nicholas Hooper; casting, Nina Gold, Robert Stern. 3 HOURS

Cast

David Tennant, Sophie Okonedo, Ashley Jensen, Toby Kebbell

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  1. Both Parts 1 and 2 were the same episode! I am so disappointed!

  2. julie says:

    Thank you for your review – After reading what felt like overwhelming applause, I’d given up hope. Seems to me that Escape Artist was unworthy of Masterpiece Mystery and David Tennant. The premise+plot+pruience seemed so thoroughly unbelievable that my interest waned in the first and never recovered sufficiently to finish in the second. Adding to this, I find the summer Endeavor series to be equally as disappointing. Is it really necessary to make Morse seem a ridiculous savant as he pours forth about his revelations? Last year’s beginning had such great promise.

    I’m wondering what you think and would love some insight into the PBS “B movie” offerings at a time when television programming is so bleak. Needless to say, I really miss the brilliance of Breaking Bad.

  3. Kate says:

    Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed The Escape Artist – the English just have it down on how to write suspense and I would hardly state this is a B movie. It kept us glued to the television. The acting was great, the story telling was solid, and what I found, on further reflection, was chilling when Liam Foyle told Burton “I’m on Facebook”. Think about it.

  4. G. Hooker says:

    What was In the beribboned gift box that shocked Maggie so — and, how did Burton know of Foyle’s allergy? I believed Burton when he said he had no access to Foyle’s medical files.

    • j. murray says:

      She’s shocked about the tea, because she realizes that he broke into her house to find out. Remember earlier, the neighbor telling her that she just missed her friend, her friend that took out the trash can for her? We find out in the very end when Will and Maggie are talking about what happened, and how Will knew about the allergy.

  5. robertawright says:

    I liked the Escape Artist very much. The allergic reaction was an especially good touch. I’m sorry the
    reviewers and other posts don’t feel the same!

  6. Sol Flaugher says:

    “The Escape Artist” was one of the most predictable, unsuspenseful and irritating crime dramas I’ve ever watched, heavy on the gory details of the murder (do we need that?), light on crime detection, and misleading on the law. Are we to believe that in England a suspect caught with blood on his shoes (the victim’s presumably, although this is not made clear) is just let go because the crime has become a public sensation and he couldn’t, therefore, get a fair trial?? Just let go? Are we to believe that in England forensics are so sloppy or non-existent that nothing, not a little thing could tie the crime to the suspect? Shame on PBS. This is no masterpiece, but thanks at least for not showing us the “extracted eyeballs of the victim, done while she was still alive”.

    • julie says:

      Agreed! And, to add insult to injury = what’s with this summer’s Endeavor series – beyond ridiculous.

  7. Rebecca L says:

    One thing to note about this – and it may have some bearing on your sense that the thrills were not as great as they might have been – this was shown in *3* episodes in the UK, with each episode ending in a cliff-hanger.

    The international release has been adapted to 2 episodes for some unfathomable reason. I think (as your review indicates) that it has done the show a great disservice. I recommend getting the DVD when it is released, because it will be in the original format.

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