International crime dramas are frequently compared to those stand-out Scandinavian series, The Killing and The Bridge. ‘Witnesses’ is one of the few which actually lives up to that comparison. It’s a stylish, slightly strange psycho-drama, full of mystery and intrigue. The tightly-woven plot threads confuse, confound and compel the viewer to devour the next episode. The central characters, while not quite in the same league as Sara Lund, Saga Noren or Lisbeth Salander, are complex, flawed and fascinating. And the filming in a run-down windswept French coastal region is breathtakingly superb. The colours are muted; the landscape drenched in dismal drizzle. The crumbling architecture of once-splendid seaside villas add sinister notes of decay and neglect. The opening title sequence is subtle, surreal and unsettling.
The series has its flaws – some of the developments don’t stand detailed scrutiny, and I winced at the hackneyed use of pregnancy as a clumsy plot device which blights the female protagonist. Similarly, some of the generally intelligent characters behave in remarkably stupid ways simply to satisfy the needs of the storyline. (How many active coppers really wear high heels? Really? Or don’t carry spare magazines for their guns? Or barge into threatening situations without waiting for back-up?)
But the performances from the whole cast, and especially the trio of central characters, redeem these weaknesses. Kaz the killer is a convincingly chilling villain, while Paul – his counterpart, the detective who always over-steps the mark – is superbly realised as a broken man, brought back to life by his enemy.
And as for the wolf… well, the ambiguity surrounding its existence was a masterstroke. As was the peculiar pacing of the storyline, making many of the developments wildly unpredictable until the final episode.
The French dialogue is subtitled in English; if you do have some colloquial French then it’ll enhance your understanding of the relationships and some of the otherwise mystifying shifts between scenes. Some of the most potent interactions are entirely wordless, where worlds of meaning are exchanged in glances and physical performance. Just watch how Paul’s body language changes through the six episodes…
There’s much here for Eurocrime enthusiasts to enjoy. Tense and atmospheric, Witnesses is more like Engrenages than Braquo; small-scale, intense drama. A second series would be hugely welcome.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Witnesses is available on DVD and various streaming services