Sunday, August 6, 2017

Father Brown: “The Penitent Man” (BBC Studios, BBC Worldwide, PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I had hoped to watch a Lifetime movie but the two that were on, The Perfect Soulmate and The Perfect Stalker, were both reruns of ones I’d seen recently, so instead I watched a quite compelling episode of the Father Brown series on KPBS, one which originally aired in Britain on January 19, 2017 (usually it takes a lot longer than seven months for episodes of British mystery series to make it to the U.S.!) called “The Penitent Man.” It deals with the master criminal Hercule Flambeau (John Light), who in addition to being a running menace to Father Brown (essentially Moriarty to Brown’s Holmes) is also a devastatingly handsome (our first glimpse of him shows him shirtless) Continental charmer. He’s been arrested for the murder of Flynn Hardwick (Callum Dixon) even though Brown is convinced this is one crime of which he’s innocent because Flambeau’s criminal record, extensive though it is, doesn’t include any crimes of violence. Nonetheless Flambeau actually confesses to the murder and is locked in the condemned cell of the local prison — only Brown, who’s made an archaeological study of the area and in particular of the prison, deduces that what Flambeau is really after is a medallion carefully hidden in the condemned cell by an architect who was also a religious fanatic and believed that having a medallion hidden there would help the execution victims’ souls be redeemed, forgiven their crimes and allowed in to heaven. Brown ends up in the cell with Flambeau and together they search for the medallion’s hiding place — it’s 16 bricks up and 16 bricks over from a brick inscribed “MARK 16:16” (“He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned”). 

Brown’s friends Bunty (Emer Kelly) and Mrs. McCarthy (Sorcha Cusack) spy on the Hardwick home and see Flynn Hardwick, alive and well, having an argument with his wife Peggy (Emma Pallant) — eventually we realize that Flambeau was paying Hardwick to lie low and pretend to have been murdered, so Flambeau could get into the condemned cell and steal the medallion — only Flynn doesn’t stay alive for long because Peggy double-crosses him, hitting him over the head with a frying pan and digging a grave for him. Bunty and Mrs. McCarthy witness Peggy putting her late husband into a homemade grave she has just dug, and even photograph him (incidentally the beautiful red car they drive virtually becomes a character itself!), but Peggy catches them and holds them hostage wth a shotgun. Flambeau escapes with a file provided him by Brown, who steals it off the prison warden’s desk and gives it to Flambeau on the ground that that’s a lesser sin than allowing the state to execute an innocent (of that crime, anyway) man. This is a quite good British mystery, better than usual because it’s character-driven and not a whodunit (the greatest British-born director of mystery films, Alfred Hitchcock, hated whodunits and preferred to let the audience, if not the characters, in from the get-go on what was really going on), and the characters themselves are charming, while the plot resolution (Flambeau escapes by literally swimming through a river of shit with Brown — the two get out of the prison through its underwater sewer pipe — and Flambeau gets away with the medallion but later mails it back to Brown because the experience has “poisoned it for me”) is logical and blessedly free of the nihilistic “surprise” element that’s marred more than a few recent Lifetime movies. The whole Father Brown series is one of the most tasteful British mystery shows, lacking in action (well, the protagonist is a senior-citizen priest, after all!) but charming and quite pleasant — and this was an unusually good episode not only because it has a fascinating villain (an interesting villain is practically a necessity in a crime story!) but because of the understated quality of the writing (thank you, Rachel Flowerday and Tahsin Guner, along with the great G. K. Chesterton who created Father Brown in the first place!).