Monday, August 7, 2017

GRANTCHESTER: Season 3 Blu-ray (ITV 2016/17) PBS Masterpiece Home Video

At the end of Season Two of ITV’s Grantchester (2014-2017) I predicted this franchise on the cusp of becoming everyone’s favorite ‘replacement’ for Downton Abbey (2010-2015); at the time, planning its golden retreat into retirement. Grantchester then, seemed poised for greatness – also longevity; a smartly written and stylish whodunit series, set in the post-Edwardian/post-WWII decline and restructuring of England’s caste system, with cohorts James Norton (the sinfully seductive vicar of a small Anglican Parish near Cambridge) and former pop star, Robson Green (as the oft’ – if not always – more level-headed Det. Inspector Geordie Keating), endeavoring to partner up – and, intermittently butt heads’ – while investigating some ingenious and involving crimes; all of it based on author, James Runcie’s highly popular collection of short stories.  Grantchester ought to be in its fourth season by now, except chronic delays continue to plague its smooth sail into immortality. Not exactly sure where the hiccups are, but rumor has it Norton’s busy schedule (there doesn’t seem to be a Brit-born series from the last 2 years in which his iconic, thick-lipped and chiseled chin visage hasn’t cropped up or played a pivotal part), and mercury-rising star power have left more than a few sweaty palms wringing with speculation from fans and producers alike, he might not want to strap on the clergyman’s collar anymore. 
And thus, we come to Season Three or rather, the end of it – inconclusive, incorrigibly silly and downright frustrating at times. Grantchester began as a sort of fortuitous ‘Hardy Boys-esque’ romp through this idyllic English countryside; the bromantic chemistry between Green and Norton very refreshing and genuine. For here is a story about two guys who do not really see the world as it is or, in fact, as the other does; the vicar, through his cockeyed rubric of a fractured and chronically gin-soaked religious calling (God is love, booze is great, and I will save thee from the bottle!), the cop, through a more jaundiced clarity, built up over a tenured career in law enforcement.  Oh, bullocks!  The teleplays, mostly co-written by the show’s creator, Daisy Coulam and Runcie, with moderate assists from John Jackson, Joshua St. Johnston, Oliver Frampton and Jess Williams, drew us into this close-knit community by introducing some stellar supporting characters; Morven Christie’s forthright love interest, Amanda Hopkins (sidelined from pursuing the collar in a forced marriage to Guy, played by Tom Austen), Tessa Peake-Jones’ austere yet lovable housekeeper, Mrs. Maguire; Al Weaver’s introverted and closeted homosexual minister, Leonard Finch; Kacey Ainsworth, as Geordie’s ever-devoted wife, Cathy, and Lorne MacFadyen’s enterprising and not altogether trustworthy detective in training, Phil Wilkinson. In Season One we were also introduced to Sidney’s sister, the fairly effervescent, Jennifer (played by the utterly charming Fiona Button) - a character brought into focus by Button’s winsome good humor and involved in a trio of mysteries, then tragically never revisited again; also, Pheline Roggan, as Sidney’s deliciously determined German gal pal, Hildegard Staunton (whom Sid’ spurned to renew his lusty pursuit of Amanda). Auf wiedersehen, dawling!
Grantchester Season Three is not altogether successful at either maintaining or even regaining the momentum of its two preceding years chiefly because it veers from that case-solving chemistry into a sort of sloppy soap-opera; splashing about in the deep end of melodrama; the remaining characters all getting entirely too wrapped up in the particulars of their very messy private lives.  In Season Three, our Sidney drinks less and gets depressed more; a sad state of affairs for a fellow with all that pent up sex appeal, but not even the good sense God gave a lemon. The focus of the series has moved from the cloak and dagger espionage and murder plots. Crimes still do occur. Only now they seem cruelly inconsequential to our appreciation of the various interwoven narrative bloodlines; mere appendages to offset the increasingly tangled and very complex underlay of personal matters and ‘situations’ arising between friends and lovers; opening old wounds and tearing a few new ones along the way. Does all this make for better storytelling? Hardly…or perhaps, more kindly, only occasionally. Still, there seems to be a distinct disconnect between the crime-solving and the personal warring among the regular cast of characters; introducing a separation of church and faith/crisis of conscience, an extramarital affair, and, ultimately, putting a decided period to what was always a very troubled, though intriguingly passionate flagrante delicto between good friends.
Season Three’s opener portends of an ominously dour exploration into the darker side of all of these beloved characters. This begins almost immediately when Sidney receives a dead crow and a series of spooky and threatening phone calls, culminating with the discovery of a body lying face-down in his church. As leading by example has never been Sidney’s forte, he quickly hits the most available bottle of whiskey for a little solace. Now, Geordie identifies the corpse as that of respected Dr. Atwell (Gregory Floy) who worked at the local asylum. It seems Sidney conducted the funeral services for a matron from the hospital, similarly and suspiciously died only three months earlier. This might have worked up to a very compelling Hitchockian thriller; the mood already set for a creepily good time. Alas, inexplicably, the plot detours to Amanda's woes over her estranged husband, Guy, who would like to see his daughter, Grace. My biggest peeve with Season Three is, in fact, the inexplicable way this character has morphed from the wounded party caught in a cruel and loveless marriage, now re-branded the ‘scarlet woman’, written off by her father, Sir Edward Kendall (Pip Torrens), and increasingly, playing to type. No kidding, in just seven episodes Morven Christie’s doe-eyed new mother goes from being a moderate thorn in Sidney’s side (he has to deal with ‘the situation’ of toting around town with a married woman and child) to a spurned, needy, sullen and demanding royal pain in the ass. Sidney’s new boss, Archdeacon Gabriel Atubo (Gary Beadle) is understandably, not at all pleased with this arrangement.  Even so, Sidney continues to use No. 25, the modest flat near the vicarage, as his No. 1 booty-call; despite Mrs. Maguire’s snide inferences the pair are committing sin in the eyes of the Lord.
Despite her misgivings, Mrs. Maguire is delighted to aid in the feeding and care of little Grace. Meanwhile, things begin to sizzle at the police station as Geordie is drawn into an illicit affair with his secretary, Margaret (Seline Hizli). Like Hildegard before her, Margaret ought to have been Sidney’s gal pal after Amanda walked down the aisle with Guy. It would have made perfect sense; Margaret becoming the fashionable and street-savvy go-between Sidney and Geordie. But no. Sidney could not rid himself of Amanda’s memory. And so, Margaret has since become very flirtatiously with Geordie. Rising body count, nurse Ivy Franklin (Sian Webber), more dead crows, a chance encounter with the new and very robotic matron of the asylum, Veronica (Susannah Harker) and, some heavy breathing at the vicarage…no – on the telephone and, well, we are decidedly running out of time to solve the crime of the dead doctor inside the church. Remember, this was to be the focus of Episode 1.
But no. We bounce around a little more, to Leonard’s latest (or rather, continuing) quandary: how best to keep his transparent homosexuality closeted. At the behest of the Archdeacon, it seems the only ‘cure’ is a wife; Leonard, latching onto Hilary Franklin (Emily Beavan), a woman devoted to the care of her dying father. Suspecting Amanda to be in grave danger, Sidney rushes to intercept the mysterious killer and is nearly drowned for his efforts by caretaker, Patrick Harland (Nigel Cooke) who is out for revenge ever since the death of his only daughter, Bonnie, in fact, committed to the asylum’s care by him before accidentally being killed by the staffers – including Veronica - under the guise of administering ‘therapy’. Veronica is arrested for her complicity in the crime and Harland is taken to Bonnie’s unmarked grave; the police quickly realizing the overgrown gardens behind the hospital are actually a mass burial ground for all of the asylum’s casualties. Guy re-enters the picture, hoping to become the ideal father to Grace. Sidney, who has thus far deluded himself into believing he can play the part himself, is actually driven to take up cigarettes again. Amanda is steadfast in her resolve. She will not have Guy back. It’s over. Amanda wants Sidney. Ah, but does the reverse hold true?
Most of Season Three explores Sidney’s indecisiveness. He and Amanda ought to have married right after the war. Now? If the mystery trappings of Episode 1 seem convoluted to downright diffused, they are cohesive compared to the meandering plot structure of Episode 2. It begins with unintended poisoning during a cricket match and ends with Sidney’s revelation Guy is not the evil puppet master holding Amanda hostage; just a clumsy bloke who misfired in his vows and is now going to be made to pay for his mistakes – perhaps, even unfairly so. Archdeacon Atubo drops veiled comments (okay, threats) about upholding the sanctity of the church, cryptically referencing his predecessor, but perhaps equally hinting Sidney’s dalliances with a soon-to-be divorcee are quite unacceptable. We get shades of Downton Abbey at the local cricket match, Sidney and Geordie encountering racism against Pakistani batsman, Zafar Ali (Dinesh Sundran). After a disputed decision, the game is forfeited by the team captain and local doctor, Geoff Towler (Peter Davison). But after only a few moments of post-game refreshments the entire team begins to suffer from the after effects of arsenic-laced beer. We get a shameless sequence where Amanda nurses Sidney back to health; he, of course, naked from the waist up to advertise his six-pack abs, much to Mrs. Maguire’s chagrin.  
The following morning, Zafar’s body is discovered by his brother, Munir (Parth Thakerar). Despite his Muslim religious beliefs, Zafar is encouraged by Geordie and Sidney to have an autopsy performed. The discovery of arsenic poisoning places both Geoff and his demure daughter, Annie (Ciara Charteris) at the top of the ‘prime suspect’ list – especially since she and Zafar were secretly in love. In fact, Zafar had been contemplating converting to satisfy her parents. Meanwhile, Geordie escalates his affair with Margaret under DC Phil Young’s watchful eye. It takes a little more time for Sidney to figure out his best friend is being disloyal, but when he does he flies into full sanctimonious piety mode, causing Geordie to call him out on his own indiscretions with Amanda. Cathy suspects something but will not ask her husband the obvious question. Instead, she confides in Sidney, whom she implicitly trusts, asking if he knew something he would tell her…right? Wrong. Sidney lies to Cathy. He is also critical of Leonard’s attempt at ‘going straight’; chiding him from his proposal of marriage to Hilary. The engagement is complicated when Leonard’s former love interest, photographer, Daniel Marlowe (Oliver Dimsdale) is hired to take the prenuptial pictures. 
Meanwhile, Geoff (Davison) gives Amanda an earful; branding her as a wanton, thus placing Grace’s reputation in a precarious position should she pursue Sidney to husband and to bed. Amanda seeks a divorce. Both church and state are not on the couple’s side. The law requires grounds for a divorce (say, adultery), while the church will never allow vicars to wed divorcees. It’s no good. Sidney must choose between Amanda and the church. Returning briefly to the mystery at hand, Munir puts his own spanner in the works when he reveals Zafar was already betrothed in an arranged marriage back in Pakistan. Munir believes Annie has poisoned Zafar out of revenge. However, it is quickly revealed Annie’s mother Rosie (Emma Davies) did the poisoning to prevent her daughter from making a ‘terrible mistake’ with a man neither of her class or race. Leonard, the most introspective and least judgmental, begins to contemplate breaking off his engagement to Hilary. Meanwhile, Geordie visits Margaret at her flat for passionate after hours rendezvous. He knows it’s wrong but cannot help himself. She senses he can never be hers completely, but nevertheless enjoys their times together.
As with Episode 1, the crime of passion here is incidental to the storytelling. Too bad. Grantchester is supposed to be a mystery franchise, not England’s version of Peyton Place. While Seasons One and Two kept all these variables in play, revolving the private goings on around the elemental investigations, Season Three begins to pattern its narratives on a sort of fractured perils of the flesh morality clause with a little murder thrown in for good measure. But the crimes are the least involving part of Season Three; a genuine shame.  In Episode 3, Leonard is hailed a hero after he and Hilary survive a harrowing robbery at gunpoint in the post office. Perusing the police mugshots, Leonard and Hilary identify the culprit (who was wearing a gas mask at the time) as Walter Dunn (Joe Ferrara); a convicted felon/robber and extortionist, presently running a garage repair service. Alas, when Geordie, Sidney and Phil arrive to apprehend Dunn they discover he is already dead of an apparent suicide. Actually, the whole crime scene has been doctored beforehand. But by whom? Unimaginatively, we learn Dunn’s secretary Martha Headingly (Flora Nicholson) and the postmaster’s daughter; Wendy Parker (Eve Ponsonby) joined forces to rid themselves of their controlling male influences; Dunn’s persistent pawing, and Martha, her stringent life working for her conservative father. The two had planned to use their ill-gotten gains for an escape to Paris.
In Episode 4, factory worker, Josephine Sutton (Alix Ross) is found fatally injured and lying on the pavement below the two-story window of the company that employs her. Sidney’s Sunday sermon preaches that ‘temptation is the source of all suffering,’ and yet he finds no resistance to it as his relationship with Amanda heats up. The particulars of Geordie’s affair with Margaret are revealed to Cathy by Phil at the policeman’s ball, leaving her dejected and humiliated. Cross-examining Sidney on the matter, Amanda learns he has known about it for some time. She is disgusted by his placing friendship ahead of his duty as the moral purveyor. Meanwhile, Mrs. Maguire’s husband, Ronnie (Charlie Higson), presumed dead and MIA at the end of the war, resurfaces with a con; informing everyone he has cancer.  Uncharacteristically, Mrs. Maguire decides to give Ronnie a fair shake, though hardly another chance to burrow into her heart. How does he repay her? By absconding with her locket and life savings.  Having broken off his engagement to Hilary, and unable to reconcile his feelings for Daniel, Leonard writes a suicide note for Sidney, then proceeds to go upstairs to slit his wrists with a razor blade. He is only partially successful. Binding his wounds, Sidney offers unbridled comfort to his most devoted friend.  Leonard’s near death forces Sidney to reexamine his faith in the church; an institution that considers his love for Amanda illicit and Leonard’s for Daniel an abomination. Is God love or just very cruel? Or is it only the church seeking to dictate affairs of the heart?
Amidst all this inner turmoil there remains a nagging question that has absolutely nothing to do with anything: who killed Josephine Sutton? When Geordie and Sidney arrive to inspect the body, Sutton actually stirs. She is still alive. Alas, slipping in and out of coma, and with no hope to fully recover from her ordeal, the girl dies without ever divulging the particulars of her last moments on earth.  The factory’s boss, Ezra Garston’s (Christopher Fulford) proposes Sutton leapt to her doom because of an illicit affair with a boy not from these parts. But Sidney and Geordie soon realize the owner’s son, Gideon (Joe Jameson) actually ran Sutton down on the side of the road, quite by accident. Unable to justify leaving the scene of the crime, he instead had Ezra help him lay out the body in a place it would be discovered.  As Ezra belongs to the Masonic Lodge, the Masons prevent Geordie from making an arrest. Superintendent John Baldwin (Adrian Lukis) is a Mason. So is Phil. Too bad for the Masons, Phil has grown a conscience as well as a ‘new pair’; slipping Geordie enough evidence to force Ezra’s hand. He will continue to pay restitution to Sutton’s family; money for the education and rearing of her orphaned son. Disillusioned by it all, frustration compounded by Amanda’s demands to know exactly where she stands, Sidney confronts the Archdeacon with his primal doubts about remaining a clergyman. The Deacon urges Sidney to ask for God’s help. “I did,” Sidney replies, “He didn’t answer me.” And thus, in Episode 5, Sidney’s travels lead him to briefly walk away from the church in search of Ronnie and Mrs. Maguire’s stolen booty.
Very soon, Sidney finds the polygamist Ronnie hold up in a remote gypsy camp with another wife, Cora (Lorraine Ashbourne) and two young daughters. Cora is the one dying of cancer and Ronnie, despite his treachery, has stolen not for himself but to manage the necessary treatments that may save her life. The gypsy community is none too hospitable toward the interloper in their midst, even less so when Ronnie is discovered murdered and the money Sidney earlier demanded be returned to him suddenly gone missing. Cora’s son Pal (Adrian Bower) refuses to involve the police. As fate would have it, Geordie has tailed Sidney to the camp. Sidney refuses to come home with Geordie, so he goes it alone and informs Mrs. Maguire of her late husband’s passing. Incensed, Mrs. Maguire makes her own pilgrimage to the gypsy camp. At first, she and Cora are downright adversarial towards one another. Gradually, a détente stirs. Cora gives back Mrs. Maguire’s money. Recognizing its importance, Mrs. Maguire lays claim to only half; the rest for Cora for whatever cancer treatments she may require.
Again, the murder is given short-shrift; solved in one of those perfunctory deductions made by Sidney. As it turns out, a fiery young buck, Abraham (Ewan Mitchell) intended to marry Cora’s granddaughter, Luella (Alexa Davies) and inherit leadership of the camp from her father Pal. He accidentally offed Ronnie in one of his hot-headed fits of rage. Why? Because Luella was already two-timing him with the local landowner’s son, Marcus (Simon Lennon) and Ronnie was helping her to conceal the affair. Mrs. Maguire gives Sidney a bit of homespun advice; telling him it is high time he grew up. Geordie also has a change of heart. After Cathy has evicted him from the family home he breaks off with Margaret. Finally, Amanda puts a period to Sidney’s indecisiveness with an ultimatum. “It’s either me or the church!” she reiterates before slamming the door in his face.
Grantchester’s season finale concludes on as somber a note of uncertainty. After authoring his letter of resignation, Sidney returns without his collar to begin a new life with Amanda in London. Leonard is gravely concerned about the new vicar’s ‘tolerance’ towards him and Mrs. Maguire is unexpectedly leveled by the news of Sidney’s departure, despite having served as matron to four vicars before him. Geordie’s is the sole note of encouragement here. Meanwhile, a local boy, Jacob Reilly (Darius Greenlaw) vanishes without a trace. The boy’s father, Richard (Neil Jackson) is quick to accuse Daniel of a possible abduction but Leonard stands up for his friend. Eventually, suspicion falls upon Jacob’s teacher, Mark Davies (Sam Hoare), who misguidedly intervened because he thinks the boy comes from an abusive home. Taking Davies into custody, Geordie exacts his own particular brand of justice, pummeling Davies near senseless to gain his confession.
This outburst causes Sidney to reexamine his future. It isn’t with Amanda. He values his place as a beacon within the community – a vicar, first, foremost and always. When Amanda discovers Sidney has yet to give his resignation letter to the Archdeacon she knows their dream of a life together has no future. Aside: in James Runcie’s original short stories, Sidney actually marries Hildegard Staunton. Hmmm. We’ll see. As rumors continue to circulate James Norton has yet to commit to a Season Four – his permanent break with Amanda may be the best fans can hope; this, and of course, Mrs. Maguire finally free to tie the knot with Jack Chapman (Nick Brimble), in a ceremony presided over by Leonard. Geordie and Cathy reconcile at the reception while Leonard affirms his love for Daniel with a passionate kiss; leaving Sidney to sob over the pain he has both caused and its repercussions he must now endure. Will he endure no more or move on, pray, to Season Four?
If there is a Season Four in the cards for Sidney, Geordie and the rest of the cast, then I sincerely hope it involves a return to the sleuthing that made Series One and Two so engrossing ‘must see’ entertainment. The shift from mystery to melodrama has not served this franchise well as there is never enough time to fit all of the pieces from these varying back stories together, much less piecing the clues into a cohesive whodunit that satisfies these polar opposites in storytelling. Kieran McGuigan’s cinematography is a mixed blessing; moodily augmenting the murder mystery elements but a little too dark and depressing for the melodrama. I have to reiterate, Grantchester Season 3 was not exactly my cup of well-steeped Earl Grey. The bromantic chemistry between Geordie and Sidney from earlier seasons is taken as a given here and its weak to downright uninspiring. As secondary characters have risen through the ranks, their histories have vied for screen time that might best have been spent concentrating on the mysteries that, at least in Season 3, have been economically conceived and even more simplistically resolved. There is no subterfuge or intrigue to the ‘mystery’ portion of these episodes; the balance concentrated on relationships and their occasionally dishonestly evolved outcomes. Hence, Grantchester has gone from a contemporary Sherlock Holmesian crime solvers’ series to a soap opera with crimes by happenstance, almost as incongruously and much too neatly resolved.
Grantchester Season 3 looks predictably solid on Blu-ray; a crisp and delicately refined image sporting good solid contrast, a light smattering of grain and no untoward DNR tinkering. The image is, predictably, free of artifacts – age-related or digitally conceived – and color fidelity is extraordinary. Greens and reds pop with unanticipated brilliance and flesh tones sport exquisite subtle tonality. I loved the way these episodes look and sound in 2.0 DTS. There’s really nothing more to say. ITV has done a bang-up job here. We get a very brief ‘making of’ featurette, another ‘behind the scenes’ look at the franchise, plus a featurette dedicated to the making of the ‘Christmas episode’. Bottom line: Grantchester on Blu-ray is a winner. I just sincerely wish these episodes lived up to such high standards. Regrets!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3
VIDEO/AUDIO
5
EXTRAS

3

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