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.