TV Review: Thirteen (UK, 2016)

What is the first thing you would do after being trapped underground for thirteen years? This is the question that BBC First’s mini-series Thirteen tries to answer.

Programme Name: Thirteen - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. 5) - Picture Shows: Ivy Moxam (JODIE COMER) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Sophie Mutevelian
Ivy Moxam (JODIE COMER)

When affordable Pay TV and access to streaming digital content is easier than ever, we demand quality. Where more and more drama and comedy series seem to bring light to dark subject matter, with shows like Dexter, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and now Thirteen; a five part mini-series that beautifully tests the boundaries of what some would call ‘binge worthy TV’.

This tense psychological drama follows a young woman learning to live again after 13 years in captivity. 26-year-old Ivy Moxam, played by Jodie Comer, stumbles out into the street, away from the cellar that’s been her supposed prison for the last 13 years. But escape is not the end of Ivy’s story. It’s just the beginning.

As she returns home, Ivy’s parents keep their bitter separation from her, desperate to recreate the idyllic life she was wrenched from. Christina, Ivy’s Mum played by Natasha Little, who can’t confront the reality of those missing years and her now ex-husband Angus, played by Stuart Graham, is a father torn between two versions of his old and new life. Even Ivy’s sister Emma, played by Katherine Rose Morley, who still feels hidden in Ivy’s shadow is questioning herself and the fact her sister is no longer who she used to be.

Family Struggles
Family Struggles

Ivy’s captor, Mark White, played by Peter McDonald, is on the run, and she isn’t safe. Assigned to the case are DI Elliott Carne and DI Lisa Merchant, played by Richard Rankin and Valene Kane. Their bond together is more than professional, but it begins to break as Carne is drawn closer to Ivy and her case.

When cracks appear in Ivy’s account of her ordeal, they both start to doubt her motives. Beneath her childlike façade, she’s become a strong-willed woman. What happened to Ivy in that cellar? How has it changed her? And can she be trusted? This all becomes even more empowering when Ivy is asked to be drawn back into the hell she had torn herself from when her tormentor rises again and takes another girl, now only Ten years old. Can Ivy help? Or will she hinder?

Jodie Comer’s Ivy is played with an ease that seems beyond her age. Her character of Ivy is so hard to read and we are left, on purpose, wondering what is going through her head. Is this all the truth? What is she hiding? Is it a big case of Stockholm Syndrome? All of Ivy’s little intricacies such as the twitching and playing with her hands, scratching the same spot on her knee, jolting when someone comes too close or touches her. To nail such a complex lead role is an impressive feat and another huge thumbs up as Jodie is now on my list of bad ass Women of cinema. I simply can’t wait to see what she accomplishes next.

'Ivy' Jodie Comer
‘Ivy’ Jodie Comer

I have become so accustomed to crime thrillers and shows that try and throw a massive curve ball, that I was waiting and expecting for something to be not quite the way it was playing out. To have that kind of attention to detail would not be easy to pull off.

The series hits the usual BBC/British drama high with only five episodes (something a lot of American shows should take a cue from). The first few episodes are directed by Vanessa Caswill and they had me shifting my chair in closer to the screen. Watching every little bit of detail leak out of the canvas that seems to have been lovingly directed for us. For a fairly small time director, writer and producer, who has released some great short films since 2006, she feels right at home here, as if a veteran of crime thrillers. Some of the interactions with Ivy and her family took me back to one of the director’s early shorts from 2010, which was basically about shielding innocence from the realities of the world we live in, called The Caterpillar and Fly.

To begin with, I did found myself being reminded of the recent film Room and the aftermath of being trapped somewhere for so long. It was hard not to draw some comparisons and try to keep a fresh and open mind. But as the show went on I did and I was rewarded for my efforts.

Writer and Creator Marnie Dickens has given us something special here. In the flood of crime dramas and TV show serials such as CSI, NCIS and Law and Order (I can keep going), Dickens has set her show apart. Working on some of the recent years biggest British shows such as Ripper Street and The Musketeers, and even a brief stint with the short lived Law and Order UK, seems to have given her the courage to jump in head first here. I applaud her for doing it so boldly.

The rest of the cast are all on their ‘A’ game, too. One of the standouts was Richard Rankin and his rough Scottish accent as Detective Elliot Carne. The care his character has for Ivy and her well-being goes above and beyond. This very fine line of trust and mystery is what makes this show tick along so marvellously at time where it could probably be a real drag.

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Richard Rankin

Ivy’s mother, Natasha Little, at times had me wanting to reach into the screen and tell her to back off and wake up to herself. As with other shows like Game of Thrones and the characters such as Joffrey, it is not a criticism but a praise in how well an actor or actress can make our blood boil. However, Natasha’s character, as with Stuart Graham’s who plays Ivy’s father Angus, grows so well throughout the show. It goes from being about captured innocence, to one about the evolution and journey of all its supporting characters.

Ivy's Parents, Natasha Little & Stuart Graham
Ivy’s Parents, Natasha Little & Stuart Graham

One of my favourite interactions throughout the course of the show comes from Ivy’s previous boyfriend Tim, played by Anuern Barnard. Seeing the two together on screen created something special for me. Reminding me of the childish things we all grew out of such as love letters, favourite songs and mix tapes together and places we all used to hang out. To be trapped somewhere for so many years and remembering everyone you ever loved just as they were, then being thrust back into seeing them thirteen years later. It would be beyond heartbreaking to see how almost everyone has tried to move on and it shows it so very well here.

Jodie Comer & Aneurin Barnard
Jodie Comer & Aneurin Barnard

The way in which the two detectives Carne and Merchant are played off into a triangle with Ivy is a smart move for the creative team here. The two have their own personal issues to deal with and Ivy getting in the way of them both plays off so well and not at the expense of the overall plot. It is, at first, a bit of a put off to see another two law enforcement officers in another TV show drama possibly falling in and out of love. However, it is done with such panache, you quickly forget about all the other movies and shows that have tried to pull it off before.

Velene Kane & Richard Rankin
Velene Kane & Richard Rankin

Meanwhile, Ivy is finding her place back in a world she has never seen (iPods, Social Media etc.) and all her other supporting family and friends are trying to find themselves again. The loss of someone can affect others in greater ways than we can’t even begin to comprehend.

I found this show so difficult to fault but thought it necessary to bring up a few puddles along the way. The local school principal played by Nicholas Farell and DS Jesse Rawlins played by Charles Babalola. In no way was their acting at fault; they only show up in very few scenes and feel like they slowed down the overall plot of the show. In a drama that is so accurate on detail, this just felt out of place.

Without giving too much away the mini-series really speeds up the pace in the final two episodes. I would have loved to have seen a little more closure, but in a way, it feels so much stronger for not having to shut everything off and cross all the boxes. Leaving us with an open mind and some interpretation of our own to sort out.

This kind of story telling is next generation. With other, much bigger budget shows trying to push out twenty something episodes a season, I have a much higher regard for British drama now and how it can be so much more impactful in a shorter period. The saying ‘less is more’ certainly holds true. If you want mystery, drama and suspense in a binge worthy TV show, add Thirteen to your ‘MUST SEE’ list.

Check out the gritty Trailer here:

Thirteen airs on BBC First for Foxtel and Fetch TV on Sundays, 8.30pm from July 31st.