Bloodlands dredges up Northern Ireland’s troubled past

Writer Chris Brandon’s four-part crime series provides impressively detailed historical-political context – but subsequently undermines it.

James Nesbitt as DCI Brannick in Bloodlands (2021)

Bloodlands is available to stream on BBC iPlayer.

It’s a point so obvious it barely needs restating that the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 continues to represent a pivotal moment in the recent fortunes of Northern Ireland. But apart from the restitution of normality after decades of violent conflict, the solid footing of the peace process has allowed film and television creators greater leeway to use the nation’s troubled history as a distinctive backdrop for crime drama.

Four-part BBC1 series Bloodlands is perhaps the most specific yet in using the differences between present-day policing and the bad old days before the Agreement to examine how the crimes of the past can continue to have an impact on today’s continuing process of reconciliation. Hence, the kidnapping of a former IRA man now running a haulage company proves a catalytic event, since a postcard left at the crime scene, showing the local landmark of the Harland & Wolff shipyard, signals inside knowledge of an unsolved early 1998 murder spree when Republican and Loyalist terror suspects were assassinated by a mystery assailant who investigators named ‘Goliath’, after the H&W crane.

The prospect of raking over old coals proves particularly traumatic for DCI Tom Brannick (James Nesbitt), the detective on the current kidnapping case, who as a young police officer lost his wife to the same perpetrator. With her body still unaccounted for, he has spent the intervening years simmering in grief and anger, awaiting justice or at least some form of closure.

Bloodlands marks the debut of writer Chris Brandon, who grew up in the loughside village of Strangford in County Down. His local knowledge is evident in the story’s use of a tiny island in the middle of Strangford Lough as a remote burial site, vividly captured by drone camera – a desolate splodge of earth surrounded by a silvery shimmer of water.

Brandon has a strong grasp, too, of the local policing regime, the change from the largely Protestant-dominated Royal Ulster Constabulary before the GFA to the cross-community Police Service of Northern Ireland today, and of the mistrust that lingers. Thus the long-serving Protestant officer Brannick rails at his long-serving Catholic superior officer (Lorcan Cranitch) for having put the kibosh on the Goliath investigation all those years ago in order to avoid destabilising the newly-signed Agreement, and for insisting now that Brannick not use the current investigation as a back door to reopen the case.

Lola Petticrew as DCI Brannick’s daughter Izzy in Bloodlands (2021)

Complicating everything just a bit more is the presence of the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains, which has jurisdiction over the remains of victims murdered during the Troubles prior to the Good Friday Agreement, so that newly discovered bodies cannot be used in court evidence and must remain known only to the Commission and the surviving relatives. Such legislation aims to parcel off the Troubles and contain the corrosive potential of continuing revelations, but here, in story terms it also puts a further barrier between Nesbitt and uncovering the truth he’s seeking – thus apparently making his resolve to do so even firmer.

It is impossible to avoid comparisons with Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty – it is made by Mercurio’s company HTM Productions, with Mercurio himself as an executive producer, and kept warm the Sunday night timeslot now occupied by Line of Duty’s latest iteration. The comparison doesn’t do Bloodlands any favours: it would be fair to say that the sharply drawn cultural-historical context here proves more successful than the investigation narrative.

Apart from including many stretches of painful expositional dialogue – in which police personnel explain political nuances to fellow professionals solely for the benefit of viewers used to tuning out any time Northern Ireland is mentioned on the news – Brandon risks everything on a major midpoint reveal. What was playing out as a personal quest for a fuller understanding of a bitter past does a back-flip: now it’s a story about somebody seeking self-preservation through covering up his past sins. In some respects, the series plays into that Hitchcockian urge to root for someone getting away with it; but given the way that the series has front-loaded the Northern Irish specificity and the weight of memory, one wonders whether this kind of genre-savvy reversal is tenable. Essentially, having established Northern Ireland as a very particular case, and not just a cop-show anywhereland, the script then proceeds to diminish the value of its own careful narrative groundwork – leaving this viewer confounded by uncertainty over where our loyalties are supposed to lie.

Adding insult to injury, the show is also disturbingly ready to brush aside the story’s internal logic to pave the way for a sequel. Notwithstanding Nesbitt’s palpably weathered keynote performance, the final episode leaves us discomfited and unsatisfied. With major questions still left unanswered, perhaps a second series would bring the resolution the material is crying out for; whether viewers would still be enticed into another visit to this blood-stained terrain is another matter.

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