Third time out of the gate for Helen Mirren as tough London detective chief inspector Jane Tennison is right up there with the actress’s first, career-boosting outing. Top-notch casting, a subtly nuanced script by creator Lynda La Plante and well-paced, atmospheric direction by David Drury (“Defence of the Realm”) bounces the series back with a vengeance after the milder “Prime Suspect 2.”
Riff this time around is having Tennison transferred to the vice squad. Apart from that, the subject matter is the same down-and-dirty cocktail: While the first installment dealt with serial murders and the second with racial killings, here it’s pedophilia, child abuse and the London drag-queen scene, with a high-up conspiracy stirred in for good measure.
Simple plot nut is economically unveiled in the opening scenes, with the charred remains of a teenage boy discovered in a tawdry, roasted apartment. Story then fans out to involve the boy’s friend, transsexual Vera Reynolds (Peter Capaldi); his sleazeball pimp, Colin Jenkins (David Thewlis); the smooth head of a nearby child-care center (Ciaran Hinds); and a loose-cannon journalist (Kelly Hunter).
Apart from having to deal with a fresh bunch of macho colleagues, Tennison is also reteamed with her nemesis from the first outing, Sgt. Bill Otley (Tom Bell). There’s also growing heat from her bosses not to delve too deep into the pedophile ring; just to make certain, they’ve planted a Scotland Yard spy (Andrew Woodall) on her team.
“Prime Suspect 2” kept slipping out of focus with dogmatic stabs at police racism, but this latest plays on the dramatic strengths of the original: the daily grind of police procedure, rough camaraderie among the unit, unblinking digging into the darker recesses of human behavior and the crucial series of interview-room set pieces that gnaw away at the truth. Multiple-punch ending is surprisingly messy but effective.
La Plante’s deftly balanced script successfully maintains many sublots. Besides the snowballing investigation and coverup, Tennison’s personal life is economically sketched in early scenes with an American lover. Her growing disgust at the case later affects a private decision.
The large cast of characters is flavorfully drawn down the line. For those who recall his original faceoffs with Mirren, Bell’s hard-assed cop is a miniature of underplaying, especially in his gradual rapprochement with her.
As the pimp and prime suspect, Thewlis (“Naked”) is a magnetic study in sleaze. Capaldi, unrecognizable from his comic turn in the 1992 “Soft Top Hard Shoulder,” makes a sad, touching transsexual. Woodall subtly shades a thankless role as the spy. Smaller roles are all pin-sharp.
But it’s still Mirren’s show. In one of the great female characters to emerge from Brit TV drama, the actress continues to add wrinkles to a tough, sensitive, multifaceted part she’s made her own. La Plante, who deserves equal credit, saves the biggest character revelation for the end, in a career trade-off that shows Tennison’s no angel.
Though Britain’s Granada TV is sitting on the fence about further “Prime Suspects,” there’s plenty of mileage left in the character.
Technical credits are smooth, with on-the-nose cutting by Edward Mansell, some moody night lensing of underbelly London by David Odd, and creepy underscoring by Stephen Warbeck.