First appearing on our screens on New Year’s Day, the BBC One drama serial McMafia arrived accompanied by anticipation and expectation. Following a Christmas TV programme saturated with the relentless broadcasting of over-watched American films and generic festive specials, McMafia promised to be the next cult watch.
Inspired by the non-fiction book, McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld (2008), by journalist Misha Glenny, the screenplay focuses heavily on Glenny’s specialist subjects of global organized crime and cybersecurity. The action surrounds Alex Godman, the British-raised son of a Russian mafia boss, and follows his increasingly entangled path as he is sucked into a world that he believed to have escaped through his English boarding school education and legitimate reputation in London’s financial sector.
However, when his investment fund comes under threat, Alex is thrown into a network of moneymaking crime that the mafia spreads to all corners of the globe. This promises for a rich multiplicity of filming location and we are not disappointed. From Tel Aviv to Mumbai, the director James Watkins plunges the viewer into an array of diverse settings. Yet this open map is amazingly reduced to the length of one of Alex’s “business flights”, or to a few rapid taps on a keyboard by a close-knit network of global hackers.
With convincing performances from Aleksey Serebryakov and Maria Shukshina, playing Alex’s parents who were driven from Russia by a rival family, the first episode holds promise in its exiting action and foreboding tone. However, the series fails to maintain this intoxicating tension due to the disappointing lack of complexity in the protagonist’s motivations and in James Norton’s performance. A plea of avenging his uncle’s death as the reason for Alex’s quickly assumed involvement in the murky underworld is far from convincing as their supposedly “close” relationship is at best suppressed in the opening scenes. Then, following the straight-laced businessman’s tumble into the dangerous sphere of torturous murder and human trafficking, there is a distinct lack of conviction in his new position. As one who seemingly influences and incites extreme violence, whilst deceiving his colleagues and inviting his morally driven fiancée to dinner parties with criminals, James Norton fails in portraying a believable character with well-rounded complexities that one would expect from an educated young man entering a whirlpool of corruption.
Perhaps this one-dimensional acting is a rehearsal for his widely rumoured gig as the next 007 agent. However, the cold James-Bond-like performance comes as a disappointment from the first big BBC drama of 2018. Following a spectacular and gripping depiction of the global criminal web in The Night Manager, the award-winning serial of 2016, the lack of the foundations of fictionally imagined characters that John le Carré provided as inspiration for David Farr’s adaptation, is gratingly stark. With the end of McMafia still to come, we can only wait in hope that it can be saved, but much like the ruthless nature of the plot, salvation seems too distant a prospect.
Image: Kloniwotski via Wikimedia Commons.