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'Bloodlands' Police Thriller Doesn't Trivialize Northern Ireland's Troubles

James Nesbitt plays an Irish police detective whose investigation into an apparent suicide opens up historical wounds in <em>Bloodlands </em>(streaming on Acorn TV beginning March 15).
Steffan Hill
HTM Television
James Nesbitt plays an Irish police detective whose investigation into an apparent suicide opens up historical wounds in Bloodlands (streaming on Acorn TV beginning March 15).

I was maybe 12 when I first saw The Third Man, the noir classic set in a post-World War II Vienna bursting with expressionist atmospherics and jaunty amorality. Ever since, I've been drawn to tales set in the wake of historical turmoil. You get juicy stories when individuals — and whole societies — must deal with the guilts, losses and compromises they'd rather not think about.

The ghost of violence past haunts Bloodlands, a new thriller set in a present-day Northern Ireland still struggling to rebuild a sense of normalcy in the aftermath of what's known as the Troubles. Written by Chris Brandon, this four-part original series from the Acorn TV streaming service was produced by Jed Mercurio, whose hugely popular shows — such as The Bodyguard and Line of Duty — are notorious for having more twists than a rattlesnake farm. Bloodlands is more restrained, but trust me, it serves up a couple of lethal doozies.

Although you can follow the action without knowing the historical backstory, it helps to remember the basics. Starting in the late 1960s, Northern Ireland lived through a de-facto civil war between Catholics and Protestants, and the violence killed many thousands of its citizens. The conflict ran until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which brought about an uneasy peace in a small, intimate land where nobody was left untouched by bloodshed.

Bloodlands begins 20 years after this truce when a car is fished from Strangford Lough with what seems to be a suicide note in it. Assigned to the case is bottled-up police detective Tom Brannick (James Nesbitt) and his partner Niamh — well-played by the sympathetically offbeat Charlene McKenna. Tom spots a connection between this note and an unsolved case — and not just any unsolved case. This case, which dates back to the Troubles, involved an assassin nicknamed Goliath, who had ties to the police and who killed several people — including some who were close to Tom.

Just as Tom and Niamh begin reopening the Goliath case, they're ordered to stop by Tom's old friend — and police higher-up — Jackie Twomey, who's come down from Belfast to take charge of things. Played by Lorcan Cranitch – an actor who could give seminars on seeming slippery — Jackie worries that digging into the past might shatter the precarious peace. Predictably, this doesn't slow down Tom, who's obsessed with burying Goliath once and for all.

If Bloodlands initially strikes you as being a tad ponderous and formulaic, do stick around. The action starts to clip along, with nifty cinematography and deft use of the locations around the lovely Strangford Lough. Though I'm no great fan of Nesbitt, who invariably overdoes the clench-faced masculinity bit, the rest of the cast is strong, be it Peter Ballance as an IRA thug turned businessman or Lisa Dwan as a doctor who teaches Tom's beloved daughter at medical school — and who seems to fancy Tom.

Now, there are two big ways that today's crime dramas tend to go badly wrong. In an attempt to keep our adrenaline pumping, they often hit you with so many twists that the plot starts feeling arbitrary and meaningless. While Bloodlands does have a few thriller-ish implausibilities, Brandon takes care to lay the groundwork for his big surprises, and he keeps them rooted in our sense of the characters and their world. The story builds to a finale that feels apt and emotionally satisfying.

This is because Bloodlands avoids the other big mistake, which is a moral one — that of trivializing historical tragedy. At first, I feared that Brandon was exploiting Northern Ireland's tortured past simply to create a moody backdrop for a routine cop show. But I was wrong. While the series doesn't rival the best recent looks at Northern Ireland — Anna Burns' brilliant novel Milkmanand Patrick Radden Keefe's true-crime masterpiece Say Nothing — it does have something on its mind.

By the end, we see that Bloodlands isn't merely unfolding a crime story. It's offering a metaphor for the troubled soul of Northern Ireland two decades after the Troubles supposedly ended. And its characters learn a hard truth we've been learning here in America, too: You can bury the past as deep as you want, but when you get home, its ghost is there waiting for you.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers
John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.