TV Review: ZEN, 1.1 – “Vendetta”
ObsessedWithFilm, 3 January 2011
There are so many regional detectives cluttering up British television that executives have started to look abroad for inspiration. But why bother importing a foreign series and subtitling it (as BBC4 did with French crime drama "Spiral") when you can simply film British actors overseas, pretending to be foreigners. First out of the gate was an English-language remake of "Wallander", where Kenneth Branagh played a dour Swedish detective in a country suddenly populated by “Brits”, and now it’s the turn of late author Michael Dibden‘s Italian detective Aurelio Zen, played by the smouldering Rufus Sewell. The benefit is we get detective shows crammed with exotic scenery, with a cultural backdrop that’s unfamiliar and thus fascinating to explore. On the downside, it might take some people awhile to adjust to seeing Italians played by people who sound like they’re from the home counties, but I found myself adjusting to this oddity very quickly.
I had no prior knowledge of the Aurelio Zen books, although cursory research reveals that Sewell’s a decade younger and rather more dashing than Dibdin described his hero. This first feature-length episode, “Vendetta”, is based on the novel of the same name, where middle-aged detective Zen is asked to solve the murder of a politician and two hookers at his heavily-fortified mountainside retreat. The police have a suspect who’s confessed to the crimes, but has since renounced his admission after finding religion in prison, so Zen’s superiors hope the incorruptible sleuth will find the real culprit. Simultaneously, a terminally ill criminal has been released from jail on compassionate grounds and is killing the officials he believes were responsible for wrongly sending him to jail, with Zen the third name on his bloodthirsty bucket list.
My gut reaction to Zen is that it shows promise, even if the storyline seemed to wander into periods of tediousness, confusion, and an ultimate let-down. I’m not convinced 90-minutes (without adverts) is the best format for detective shows, as things definitely started to drag around the 40-minute mark, but possibly that’s because I’ve been exposed to the hour-long format more often. That said, like the BBC’s Sherlock last year, I can’t help thinking such shows would be a lot snappier with half-an-hour tightened, or lost, from the middle. However,maybe that would have ruined what felt like an intentionally laidback style, allowing the audience to soak up the sunny Italian atmosphere of beautiful architecture, country lanes, and sweltering vineyards.
As the lead, much of Zen’s success rested on the shoulders of Rufus Sewell, and the actor acquitted himself well. I was amused that he’s the Italian stereotype of a single, middle-aged man still living at home with his mother, but thankfully that was the only thing tempting cliché.
Sewell certain looked convincing as an Italian; with his angular face, brooding ambience, and designer suits. At first it was peculiar hearing his throaty South London accent in this environment, but you quickly forgot about the incongruity. Zen, as his name suggests, is an easygoing/mysterious type — apparently a rarity in Italy as a cop who hasn’t been corrupted – just going about his business, trying to solve a murder case, without sacrificing his principals and dirtying his expensive threads.
The camerawork was also really good, especially when director John Alexander employed a long zoom to suddenly rush into a subject from a great distance. A visual tic commonly seen in movies of the ’60s, which gave Zen a pleasant throwback to more innocent times. I wish more of those old-school techniques had been used, really. There was also little in the way of computers, mobile phones or forensics being used to advance the story, which felt quite refreshing.
A touch of class was added in the delectable form of Caterina Murino ("Casino Royale") as the Police Chief’s assistant Tania Moretti, who was surprisingly good, given the stigma that Bond Girls are only cast for their good looks. As a native Italian, she gave the episode some reality in a sea of British accents, and obviously the camera just wanted to eat her up. The chemistry she had with Sewell was as strong and steamy as an Espresso.
Overall, Zen was stylishly shot and well-acted, telling a story that wasn’t quite as sharp and satisfying as I’d hoped for, but it was good enough to leave you wanting more. Dibdin wrote eleven Zen books before his death in 2007, so there’s a few three-story runs available to the BBC, before the option of writing original plots needs to be explored, and Sewell proved himself a strangely beguiling and reticent hero.