Based on British journalist Misha Glenny’s non-fiction book, McMafia: Crime Without Frontiers, the BBC’s ambitious eight-part crime saga McMafia has kicked off 2018’s new crop of crime drama in style.
McMafia is an urban crime saga set in a global village. Frontiers restrict the movements of the poor but present no such restrictions for an elite whose money moves freely among offshore accounts. The lines between legitimate and illegitimate business have become blurred, translated into a global language of currency. Whether it’s drugs, guns, freight or property, the spreadsheets look the same.
Created by director James Watkins (Eden Lake, The Woman in Black) and writer Hossein Amini (Drive, Our Kind of Traitor), this first episode teases a globe spanning and thematically complex thriller in the style of John le Carré or Fredrick Forsyth. The use of glamorous locations – Mumbai, London, Tel Aviv, and the Palace of Versailles feature in this opening episode – high society parties serving caviar and champagne, and the extraordinary number of tuxedos have already drawn comparisons to The Night Manager.
Using Glenny’s book for inspiration, Amini and Watkins have drawn on a number of true stories but have woven them into a fictional narrative that is initially focussed on the Godman family. The Godmans are of Russian origin but live in London after patriarch Dimitri Godman (Aleksey Serebryakov) was exiled having angered Vadim Kalyagin (Merab Ninidze), a powerful oligarch with ex-KGB connections.
Dimitri’s son Alex (James Norton) has been raised and educated in the West, and fully assimilated in British culture is now in charge of his own financial firm, which he has scrupulously kept clear of any Russian investment to avoid the taint of corruption. This has meant refusing any assistance from his beloved and wealthy uncle Boris (David Dencik).
Boris places the entire family in danger by arranging an attempt on Kalyagin’s life as part of efforts to consolidate his personal power. An unwilling Alex is pulled inexorably towards a world of violence and corruption, when vastly wealthy but mysterious Israeli businessman Semiyon Kleiman (David Straithairn) presents him with a potential lifeline – but one that starts him on a slippery slope of compromise.
Apart from Norton (Happy Valley, War and Peace, Belle) and veteran actor Straithairn (The Bourne Ultimatum, Sneakers) McMafia’s cast is full of international actors largely unfamiliar to British audiences. This gives it an immediate air of authenticity, avoiding the pitfall of British thesps inflicting dodgy ‘Russky’ accents on the audience (see the movie of Child 44 for a particularly egregious example).
Director Watkins puts together this opening episode with slick efficiency, concentrating on building character, introducing an intricate multi-stranded narrative, and establishing a glamorous world that masks the reek of corruption. While keeping his powder largely dry, Watkins does mount a thrilling suspense sequence in the opener to make clear that he and Amini do not intend this to be a tedious examination of the complexities of international finance.
At one point, Alex Godman is pointedly asked “what will it take to corrupt you?” It’s not a question of what, just how many episodes.
Did you tune in for McMafia episode 1? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or check out the trailer here if you’re yet to catch up – and don’t miss the second instalment tonight on BBC One at 9pm!