It’s a Pity There Are Only Three Episodes of 'Zen'
The Globe and Mail, 19 August 2011
Setting an English-language show in a non-English country raises an inevitable question: Should the actors speak in the accents of that country? The producers ofthe BBC series "Zen" (2011) decided against it.
Rufus Sewell plays Aurelio Zen, a Venetian police detective working out of Rome. Sewell is British; so are most of the other main actors. A few are not British,including Zen’s budding love interest, Tania Moretti (Caterina Murino), and Zen’s mother (an ageless Catherine Spaak), with whom the policeman has lived since the breakup of his marriage.
So Zen’s accent is radically different from those of his mother, his lover-to-be and all the Italians chattering in the background. (The series is shot on location in Rome, which, as one crewmember says with a wry smile, “is not constructed for film crews.”)
Never mind. It’s less distancing than hearing fake accents bounce off real ones,and the series is so gripping that it becomes a non-issue. If you want to hear further rationalizations for the choice, the producers discuss it in a 30-minute making-of segment on this week’s DVD, "Zen", which contains the first three 90-minute Zen mysteries: Vendetta, Cabal and Ratking.
Based on Michael Dibdin’s novels and fresh from their airing on the PBS series Masterpiece Mystery!, these TV movies take place in a world of grinding bureaucracy and institutionalized corruption – nobody’s motives are pure, including the hero’s. Still, judged against the competition, Zen is a saint. He believes in jailing the guilty rather than the innocent, a notion that causes him particular grief in Vendetta when two sets of superiors give him totally incompatible marching orders.
The other characters talk about his bull-headedness all the time. An official who meets him in a parking garage refers to Zen’s “hard-earned and unfortunate reputation for honesty.” His immediate superior tells him to learn to get along: “Compromise isn’t always dishonesty. Flexibility isn’t always corruption.” A colleague says, “It’s all a game, Zen. You just don’t know how to play it.”
One of the delights of the series is that, for all his “unfortunate” honesty, Zen is capable of playing the game in ways the others don’t suspect. There is a lightness of tone to the episodes, even when the dangers are real and violence is imminent. The producers say they had Alfred Hitchcock’s "North by Northwest" and the 1960s TV series "The Saint" in mind. With its ingenious plotting and sophisticated dialogue, "Zen" stands in that class.