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McMafia - First two episodes reviewed


Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

IT’S easy to see why the BBC has invested so much into the success of its bold new mini-series McMafia.

Doubtless buoyed by the success of The Night Manager, which adopted a similarly complex approach to a globe-trotting thriller, the corporation saw an immediate opportunity to search for another richly layered book: in this case, Misha Glenny’s tale of the Russian Mafia.

The ensuing thriller has everything from Godfather-style family dynamics (betrayals, torn loyalties, etc) to hot button issues such as organised crime and sex trafficking. It also boasts the type of male lead who sells himself owing to the innumerable James Bond links he is bound to provoke.

With The Night Manager, it was Tom Hiddleston. McMafia presents James Norton, complete with a muscular physique that’s regularly on display and a penchant for donning a tuxedo.

But – and this is crucial – none of this obvious box tickers should detract from the fact that the BBC have also hit upon a genuinely gripping new series; the type of which presents moral and ethical dilemmas aplenty, as well as a whole host of unsavoury characters who are fascinating to get to know. Hell, even the ‘nice guy’ at the centre of it, Norton’s Alex Godman, isn’t below breaking a few laws or so.

As the first episode opened, a drug dealer named Vadim Kalyagin is seen brokering a new deal in an Arab country, only to be the target of an attempted assassination via car bomb. He survives – just. But the failed attempt provides the catalyst for the labyrinthine plot that follows.

The assassination attempt is traced back to a Russian mafia family that Vadim drove out of Russia years earlier. The exiled patriarch is now a shadow of his former self but his brother, Boris, has made his own fortune and now plots to overthrow Vadim.

Deemed guilty by association to Boris, however, is the aforementioned Alex, who has spent the past few years trying to escape his family ties by going into business as an emerging markets fund manager without using any of his Godman connections or money. When a false rumour places his fund in jeopardy, Alex is forced to investigate the source.

But no sooner has it been traced back to Boris, then Boris is killed by Vadim’s henchmen, who also narrowly miss out on killing Alex himself as well as his mum and dad. Vowing revenge, and in a desperate bid to protect his family, Alex aligns himself with the shady Semiyon Kleiman (David Strathairn), an Israeli friend of Boris who has his own reasons for wanting to topple Vadim.

The climax of the first episode saw Alex reluctantly agree to follow Kleiman’s advice for bringing down Vadim and, in turn, begging Vadim to spare his father. The ploy was designed to buy enough time to set in motion a series of events that could hurt Vadim from behind a computer screen, using finance and political clout instead of bullets.

By the close of episode two, the wheels of this plan are fully in motion. But a new sub-plot is also being developed surrounding a young beauty therapist named Lyudmilla, who has arrived in Cairo for work, but who finds herself abducted and thrust into the underground world of sex trafficking.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, her new ‘employer’ turns out to be Kleiman, who promises her that she won’t have to be party to anything she doesn’t wish to be: the type of empty promise bestowed upon the best villains.

And here is where Strathairn’s character becomes really fascinating. He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing; a conniving wheeler dealer clearly out for his own ends, capable of using anyone and doing anything. How much can he be trusted by Alex?

Strathairn, of course, is having a ball in the role. It’s deliciously Machiavellian; the kind of character you love to hate (think of Aiden Gillen’s Little Finger in Game of Thrones).

But Norton, in the central role, is just as watchable; largely because we have still to work out just how far he’ll go down the rabbit hole being presented by Kleiman. Will Alex be a Michael Corleone for a new generation? The reluctant criminal forced to become an underworld king?

Questions abound throughout the series, of course. But that’s part of the allure: the ambitious scope of the story-telling and the myriad characters, which is more than a match for the sumptuous nature of the picturesque globe-trotting (which seems to drop in a new international location every 10 or so minutes!).

In this regard, James Watkins’ direction really delivers. The series looks cinematic. While the script, co-written by Watkins with Hossein Amini, has that same brilliantly convoluted and richly populated feel as many a HBO production.

This is television at its grandest, boldest and most challenging. It’s a worthwhile investment of the TV licence fee. And it deserves to find a wide and appreciative audience (just like The Night Manager).

Two episodes in and McMafia already looks set to become one of the TV events of the year. And as for those Bond rumours… well, Norton would appear to possess several of the essential ingredients, so watch this space.

McMafia airs on BBC1 on Sunday nights from 9pm.