To clear up any potential confusion at the outset, Hulu’s “National Treasure” has nothing to do with the adventure film franchise of the same name. The streaming service’s new offering is a concentrated jolt of meticulously crafted British drama, which, in four episodes, tells the story of a disgraced celebrity and the scandal that envelops his family.
Over the course of that handful of installments, which arrive on Hulu all at once, “National Treasure” manages to build more suspense and have greater impact than many dramas that chew up far more airtime. Thanks in part to a uniformly phenomenal cast, it makes intelligent and unsentimental observations about the costs of fame and the routine concessions made to celebrity.
Robbie Coltrane plays Paul Finchley, a beloved comedian and TV star accused of rape. Not long after he’s questioned by the police, a single accusation turns into multiple allegations, and his quest to clear his name soon involves teams of expensive lawyers, efforts to spin the press, and network executives who smile tightly while wishing the whole problem — and Paul himself — would just go away.
Series writer Jack Thorne clearly drew upon aspects of the appalling history of the late U.K. TV personality Jimmy Savile, who allegedly committed hundreds of assaults during his decades of fame. But even if American audiences aren’t familiar with Savile or other U.K. celebrities mentioned in “National Treasure,” the general outlines of Paul’s public-image crisis are familiar enough, given similar allegations that have engulfed U.S. stars and pro athletes.
Thorne wisely does not try to take on too much in the miniseries. Outside of the actor’s legal team and a few other supporting characters, it mostly depicts Paul, his wife, Marie (Julie Walters), and his daughter, Danielle (Andrea Riseborough) as they sort through the accusations against him. The show’s tight focus is one of its key strengths: However well-versed the Finchleys are in the ways in which reality is manipulated to create a certain kind of lucrative public image, they know each other too well to keep the prickly and challenging parts of themselves completely hidden from one another.
Marie is no dupe; she’s aware that her husband is unfaithful, but she’s convinced she knows everything she needs to know about his extracurricular activities. Walters is transfixing as Marie’s certainties begin to crumble, and as “National Treasure” proceeds at an expertly controlled pace, she grows uncertain about how much of her loyalty is actually willed, enabling blindness. Walters gives force and passion to her character’s electric monologues, but Marie may be most interesting when she silently regards the man she married and considers the choices she made.
Andrea Riseborough, who was so good in “Witness for the Prosecution,” is a revelation as Danielle, whose drug problems and mental health struggles get almost as much coverage in the tabloids as Paul’s efforts to proclaim his innocence. As Danielle tries to stay clean during this complicated and painful situation, Riseborough infuses the character with a heartbreaking sense of hyper-awareness and doubt. Danielle is a wounded, intelligent woman who is troubled by the fact that she can’t recall much of her youth — including the years in which Paul may have committed the assaults he’s accused of. For all her twitchy insecurity and instinctive defensiveness, she’s also perceptive about how fame has kept her parents from being truthful about many elements of their lives.
Director Marc Munden makes extensive and effective use of tight close-ups, and at times, the camera swings around almost woozily, or observes the characters from unsettling angles. At other moments, the Finchleys are seen from an almost clinical remove. All of the camera choices reinforce the idea that members of the family, especially Paul, are trapped in a bad dream that won’t end. The strained social gatherings, the depositions, the confrontations, and the wrenching court testimony all seem at once too real and ever-so-slightly surreal. And yet it’s impossible, once a viewer embarks on this journey, not to want to know how it ends.
“National Treasure” pulls off two notable accomplishments: Differing scenarios remain plausible throughout much of the story, but the drama provides a resolution that makes sense without contradicting the ambiguity of everything that transpires before the last few scenes.
Before that ending arrives, it seems possible that Paul was a less wholesome man than his affable image indicated, but incapable of assaulting women. But as “National Treasure” sorts through various characters’ recollections of the past — and of their impressions of the present — a darker view of Paul begins takes shape.
The series isn’t perfect: It might have more robustly contextualized Paul’s feelings of marginalization as the less important half of a successful comedy duo. His personal relationship with Karl, his partner in comedy (a razor-sharp Tim McInnerny), is key to Paul’s backstory, but that aspect of the drama isn’t as fully realized as it could be. In any event, Paul’s simmering frustration, or perhaps his willing acceptance of the kind of entitled behavior that famous men can often get away with, may have led him to cross lines that should never have been crossed.
It’s clear to the audience that he can be charming, grateful, and even wise, but Paul is a man with layers of darkness that he rarely examines. Coltrane does a masterful job of depicting every nuance of the character, whose wicked sense of humor masks a startling, and possibly intentional, lack of self-awareness. At Paul’s core, underneath the witty exterior, is a well of anger that’s anything but funny.