Gripping, claustrophobic and at times quite menacing. PUBLIC ENEMY's tight plot and deeply atmospheric storytelling make it perfect binge-watching material and offers Belgium a firm foothold in the Euro Noir market
Imagine it's 2045. Human rights judges have found whole-life tariffs to be illegal. The maximum sentence a person can receive for murder is 40 years. As a result, Ian Huntley is set to be released from prison. Imagine that.
Unpalatable, isn't it? It turns the stomach and raises the blood pressure. Now imagine that he's decided to move into a monastery in your village. In Tewkesbury or Battle, Thetford or Bridlington. Welcome to Public Enemy.
Twenty years after being convicted of murdering five young boys, Guy Béranger has been released from prison to serve probation and begin the process of becoming a monk at an abbey in the small Ardenne village of Vielsart. The villagers and monks of the abbey are irate, the former taking up arms, the latter seeking other ways to remove the psychopath from their midst.
Béranger is a psychopath, there is no denying that. As casting goes, Angelo Bison is perfect in the role. Quiet and watchful, he's more Mads Mikkelsen than Anthony Hopkins. A man whose motives and mental processes are played out not by using the world as a canvas, but within his head. Bérenger is the type of psychopath that doesn’t simply kill, but can persuade others do to so with little more than a whisper. It makes it harder to determine whether this man seeks redemption in the embrace of the church, or whether he's merely plotting to kill again.
When the body of a young girl is found, complete with Béranger trademark - the bonds that once held the village together threaten to tear it apart, turning neighbour against neighbour, friend against friend, brother against brother.
Tasked with protecting the recently released killer is Chloé Muller (Stephanie Blanchoud), dispatched from Brussels under a cloud after shooting dead a child kidnapper. There are shades of other heroines of the genre in her; the wall in her home, papered with photographs, crime scene reports and scraps of paper evokes memories of Homeland’s Carrie Matheson, whilst her emotional distancing from those around her summons up the ghost of Sarah Lund. A childhood trauma follows her, on the one hand giving her the determination of a good detective, on the other, taunting her as the mystery she couldn’t solve.
The setting itself could almost be considered a character in its own right, rugged mountainous roads turned into tunnels by thick, overhanging canopies. Sitting in a hollow, there’s an air of disconnection between the villages and the outside world. It makes the atmosphere feel claustrophobic, replaced only when the action ventures into the woods, and isolation kicks in. If there’s a recurring theme throughout, it’s the idea of imprisonment, physical or mental and this serves to exacerbate.
What's noticeable about the way the story develops is that unlike The Bridge, it does not introduce the world and its mother and expect the viewer to remember the pieces of its puzzle during the slow progression to the conclusion. Instead, it limits those introduced in the story to three distinct groups of characters - the occupants of the abbey, the police and the villagers. These groups do not necessarily interact at every stage, allowing for a leaner, more focussed storytelling experience, but when these tangential elements eventually converge, it feels natural.
For a fan of the genre, it’s a perfect addition to the collection. Its simpler plot would also suit a newcomer to foreign-language drama, an ideal introduction before moving onto something more complex.
- Public Enemy is now available on DVD. It will returns for a second series in 2018.