Zen, BBC One, Sunday
Michael Dibdin’s Italian detective series gets a snazzy, jazzy makeover

Herald Scotland, 3 January 2011
By Graeme Virtue

When we first encounter Rufus Sewell as Italian detective Aurelio Zen, he’s dressed in a super-sharp black suit, scissoring across a Roman piazza in pursuit of his morning espresso. So far, so Italian, especially when a beautiful woman (Caterina Murino) hoves into view. Bella, bella! The camera tracks Murino as she catwalks down the street, zooming in as she sways past; then cuts abruptly back to Sewell, zipping from a wide shot to an extreme close-up of his inscrutable face, imitating the speed and trajectory of an arrow from Cupid’s bow. Sproing!

It’s jazzy stuff, a knowing throwback to the film vocabulary of the late-1960s and 1970s, and a strong hint that 'Zen' (tonight, BBC One, 9pm) is shooting for retro cool but isn’t going to be too precious about it. At its most effective, it makes the windmills of your mind spool back to rose-tinted memories of 'The Thomas Crown Affair' or 'Day Of The Jackal'. When it doesn’t quite come off, it can feel a bit more like the daffy pseudo-sophistication of 'The Persuaders'. But even that isn’t necessarily an unpleasant association.

Will this snappy, snazzy approach chime with the many acolytes of Aurelio Zen, each with their own mental picture of the Venetian-born detective from Michael Dibdin’s bestselling novels? (Dibdin wrote 11 Zen mysteries over two decades, inspired by his years teaching in Perugia – the last novel, 'End Games', was published after he passed away in 2007.) If I’d been asked to suggest someone to inhabit this philosophical, burdened, deeply internalised detective, I’d sooner have thought of Brian Sewell than Rufus.

But there’s no denying the younger Sewell can wear the hell out of that suit and, at 43, he somehow looks even more handsome than when he first brooded onto our TV screens in 'Middlemarch' back in 1994. Hollywood has never quite known what to do with his particular brand of heavy-lidded intensity, habitually casting him as the villain in films like 'A Knight’s Tale' and 'The Mask Of Zorro'. His taut, unsmiling face is actually a good fit for Zen – like most detectives, he’s deeply empathetic but working in a corrupt system that has no pressing use for honest policemen so he needs a protective mask to hide behind. Zen isn’t really a talker – most likely another instinct of self-preservation – but Sewell does a lot with his witty, wary eyes when interacting with superior officers and political fixers with their own murky agendas.

This is the first of three feature-length Zen adaptations, and while it gets off to a shocking, violent start, it’s pleasantly listless for much of the running time. There are lots of lovely, street-level shots of Rome and the surrounding countryside, and the developing relationship between Zen and the unhappily married Tania (the luminous police secretary, Murino) has an appealing, languid charge.

When the plot revs up again – involving a triple-murder, a feral child, secret underwater caverns and a dying criminal’s crazed vendetta – some of the charm recedes. Zen’s circumspection means that having him explain his working aloud just so viewers can follow his train of thought rings a little false; one can’t help but feel it must have worked better on the page. There’s also a muddled fight scene that is edited in such a jumble, it feels like vital actions were excised. Even in The Persuaders, it was always obvious which baddie Roger Moore was karate-chopping.

These adaptations – produced in association with BBC Scotland – come from some of the same team behind Kenneth Branagh’s Wallander, and they’ve gone for roughly the same approach in terms of localisation. Everyone speaks English, but the names, cars, locations – even the newspapers and TV news reports – remain Italian. Thus we’re saved from “whadda mistake-a to make-a”impersonations, but still get a feel for the warp and weave of Italian life.

Branagh’s Wallander is endlessly compelling – something about the cold, hard light of southern Sweden gives it a flintiness that makes it unlike any other cop show on TV. But there’s a warmth to Zen that’s pleasantly appealing. When Tania turns to Aurelio after a sumptuous dinner and asks, brightly, “Are we going to have an affair?” you might find yourself, like me, unconsciously nodding even before Zen blurts his answer. Bella, bella.

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