A slew of U.S. crime procedurals has arrived since Jane Tennison — writer Lynda La Plante’s female police inspector in a predominantly male world — made her debut 15 years ago. While the character is clearly the worse for wear, Helen Mirren’s latest scintillating performance elevates this otherwise conventional potboiler into a fitting sendoff. Like Tennison, “Prime Suspect” is a bit past its prime, but in this golden year of regal Mirren performances, “Suspect’s” seventh and by all accounts final sojourn for PBS places yet another jewel in her crown.
Having climbed the ladder within Scotland Yard, Tennison is a pale shell of her former self — swigging a water glass of liquor before heading to work, hands shaking and knowing retirement looms. She’s also grappling with the imminent death of her father (Frank Finlay) and contemplating roads not taken in her devotion to career at the expense of a personal life.
Against this backdrop comes the case of missing Sallie, a 14-year-old who turns up murdered. It’s a messy, painful investigation, especially when the schoolgirl’s body is found and the evidence indicates she was pregnant.
In the process, Tennison must investigate Sallie’s torn-up father (Gary Lewis), who at one point makes excellent use of a “World’s Greatest Dad” mug, and also bonds with one of the dead kid’s friends, Penny (Laura Greenwood), the daughter of the school headmaster (Stephen Tompkinson) who doubled as Sallie’s coach.
The mystery leads down various paths, revealing a sordid tale of teenage sex and drugs. Frankly, though, the whodunit is wholly secondary to Tennison’s unfolding woes, which include various mistakes that threaten to hasten her exit: A suspect detects alcohol on her breath during an interview, for example.
None of this is especially fresh terrain, but Mirren’s star power and the other solid perfs — most notably by young Greenwood as Penny — add texture to material that would otherwise pass as a standard CBS procedural, albeit one that unfolds at a more leisurely pace.
The main distinction is Mirren. Following her Emmy-winning perf in HBO’s “Elizabeth I” and title turn in “The Queen,” she invests Tennison with dignity and intelligence but also pathos, determined to solve Sallie’s murder so she can go out on a win before her excesses undo her.
“Don’t call me ‘mum,’ ” she says, chiding a colleague near the end. “I’m not the bloody queen.”
Sorry, mum, but we beg to differ.