Even for such tradition-bound sorts as the British, there’s nothing like a change of pace to keep things fresh. So it’s easy to see why Helen Mirren, famous for her critically lauded portrayal of detective inspector Jane Tennison in the “Prime Suspect” series, decided to play down-and-out former blues singer Maggie Sheridan in this new “Masterpiece Theatre” mini. And yet Maggie’s travails are not all that different from Tennison’s, for here, too, Mirren’s efforts are in the service of solving a crime. This time, however, the scene is a country estate in Ireland and not London’s mean streets.
Long past her glory days as a musician, Maggie has been holed up at the remote manse of Sir Charles Stafford (Iain Cuthbertson) when a robbery goes awry and her elderly benefactor is mortally wounded. A seemingly botched job, the theft nets the perpetrators only a few paintings, most of them of little value. But something’s not quite right, and Maggie feels it. Hoping to repay her debt to Sir Charles, Maggie decides to investigate his death.
What she finds — that Sir Charles himself was behind the robbery in a misguided attempt to make good on debts incurred by his ne’er-do-well son Sebastian (Iain Glen) — at first shocks her, but loyalty and a sense of adventure propel Maggie to pay off Seb’s underworld creditors and save him from otherwise certain doom.
Soon she’s in London, reunited with her sister Susie (Lesley Manville), an art historian, and brother-in-law Oliver (Michael Maloney), an art dealer. In an elaborate, if unbelievable, scheme, the trio decides to rescue the one Stafford painting that’s ultimately worth something and use the money to rescue Seb. But the art word is dangerous as well as alluring, and Maggie is never far from peril, least of all when she’s in the company of dapper and mysterious gallery owner Robert Tassi (Franco Nero).
Those enamored of the gritty realism captured in “Prime Suspect” may feel let down by Mirren’s rather fantastical adventures here (her liaison with a moody jazz musician seems inserted merely to remind us of her cool past), but Mirren is a compelling presence in practically any vehicle, and she is eminently watchable even in this odd role.
The supporting cast doesn’t disappoint, either, with every player well suited to his or her part. And if the plot strains under close examination, there are little in-jokes to compensate.
For the tech credits, no misgivings. Exteriors are often verdant and sumptuous; interiors, either lush and warmly lit or eerily menacing.