Southcliffe Review: “The Hollow Shore” (Series 1, Episode 1)


2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene was a film that promised many great things to come from its writer-director Sean Durkin. The slow burning and deeply unsettling drama was incredibly confident in its telling, relying mostly on subtlety and stillness to tell a story which never revealed its hand to early. It was a debut that promised Durkin an exciting start on the indie filmmaking path, however, after only one film Durkin was quick to make that leap from film to TV and from America to Britain for the four part miniseries Southcliffe.

From only one episode in it is clear that Southcliffe is somewhat a continuation with the themes and style of Martha Marcy May Marlene. Set in the eponymous small eerie seaside town, populated by a cast of characters who are each touched by issues both mental and physical, the story starts with a series of shootings with a brooding, grey fog descending down on the locals. We are unsure of how many people are killed at this point but it seems that this gunman is shooting at every possible turn. From there the story seemingly takes us back a few days before the terrible events and sets up the atrocities to come.

Despite the promise of a cast populated by the cream of the crop of British character actors (Eddie Marsan, Rory Kinnear, Shirley Henderson, Kaya Scodelario all have major roles), the first episode of Southcliffe retains its focus on two characters, both of whom are soldiers. One, Chris Cooper (Joe Dempsie) has just returned home on a sabbatical from a tour in Afghanistan. The other is Stephen Morton (Sean Harris), a man who is nicknamed the Commander and claims to have been involved in tours of Northern Ireland and Afghanistan but is now resigned to life in the village, caring for his very terminally ill mother and completing his own basic training tasks.

The casting of Harris, who has a real knack for playing brutally unhinged people, should make it fairly clear from the outset as to who is going to commit the atrocities. Durkin and screenwriter Tony Grisoni brilliantly set up Stephen as a ticking time bomb. He seemingly befriends Chris and sees him as a fellow kindred spirit, touched by similar experiences while at war. The two begin training together, only things take a turn for the worse when during one training session Stephen hunts Chris, shooting at him as if doing SAS training. It’s a deeply unnerving and highly strange scene, one where you aren’t quite sure what is going on. Is Stephen really aiming to shoot him or has he taken training a little too far?

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