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THE RED KING

Written By:

Paul Mount
red king

Eyes inevitably roll when any new film or TV series is described as “very like The Wicker Man”. This is because Robin Hardy’s extraordinary 1973 classic is a very singular piece of work with a tone and atmosphere that’s well-nigh impossible to replicate – just ask Nic Cage.  But hold on there a moment because we’re about to suggest that Alibi’s new six-part thriller The Red King, from the mind of Toby (Being Human, Doctor Who) Whithouse is a damn sight more “very like The Wicker Man” than most of the other hapless efforts that have been crushed by this damning comparison.

Superficially, The Red King is a Police procedural of the kind so very tediously beloved by British TV commissioners. It even follows the ‘murdered/missing kid’ trope so effectively mined by Chris Chibnall’s much-copied Broadchurch. Still, it quickly becomes obvious that there’s something deeper, darker, and far more dangerous going on here than just another routine homicide. Following a whistleblowing incident on the mainland that left her ostracised, Police Sergeant Grace Narayan (the increasingly impressive Anjli Mohindra, best-known to genre fans from The Sarah Jane Adventures and, more recently, The Lazarus Project) is posted to the insular Welsh island of St Jory where she reopens the investigation into the disappearance and possible murder of the thirteen-year-old son of the village doctor (Marc Warren) a year earlier. Once governed by the teachings of The True Way, a pagan religion worshipping The Red King, St Jory doesn’t exactly welcome Grace with open arms. The recently retired Police Sergeant Gruffudd (Mark Lewis Jones, as brilliant and formidable as ever) is openly hostile and repellantly racist, and the whole village wilfully resists her attempts to bring basic law and order to a community that has so long eschewed such ideals. Grace comes into contact with the stately Lady Nancarrow (Adjoa Andoh) – you’re on the right path if you think of The Wicker Man’s Lord Summerisle – and as her investigations continue, Grace soon realises that The True Way is alive and well on the island and that sinister forces are working against her and everything she believes in.

The Red King is a belter. It drips eeriness and disquiet, Mohindra’s buttoned-up Grace butting heads with the stubborn, obstructive locals time and again, but she’s determined, resolute, and she will not stop digging into the island’s pagan underbelly. The Wicker Man comparisons are increasingly inevitable as the series rolls on, especially in the last episode, where it seems that not only has Grace lost control of the situation but also that she’s entirely given up on it and is prepared to walk away. Chillingly, she even seems to side with its pagan morality and its own warped sense of justice as the village prepares to recreate a terrible pagan ritual from its past. Toby Whithouse has created an evocative, atmospheric and chillingly compelling drama here; his scripts are clever and darkly witty (Grace has a wicked way with snarky putdowns), and an already smart and lavish production is turned into pure TV gold thanks to some barnstorming performances from the leads – Adjoa Andoh, in particular, is simply astonishing in the final couple of episodes as the story reaches its stunningly dramatic conclusion.

An unexpected treat from a completely unexpected source, The Red King is not only a glorious homage to The Wicker Man, capturing much of its edginess and creeping sense of unease, but a tense and absorbing contemporary Police drama with genre guts in its own right. The final scene suggests a sequel that we really don’t need; The Red King is a one-and-done treat that, like the film that inspired it, is likely to stay with you long after the credits roll.

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THE RED KING is streaming now on Alibi in the UK.

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