TV on DVD Review: The Guilty (1992)

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Long before Michael Kitchen waged his own battle against evil during the second world war by tracking down criminals on British soil as DCS Christopher Foyle in ITV's morally complicated, endlessly fascinating, long-running ethically existential mystery series Foyle's War, Kitchen portrayed the type of smug, self-satisfied villain that Foyle would've relished bringing to justice.

As The Guilty begins, Kitchen's flashy attorney Steven Vey turns a British courthouse into The Globe Theatre, quoting Shakespeare by memory while arguing a libel case, which easily foreshadows the themes and events to come in this 1991 miniseries from Chancer scribe Simon Burke and director Colin Gregg.

While dazzling his colleagues with his Bard act, Vey asks aloud how much one's good name and reputation is worth before eventually a snake-like fellow attorney and friend (or as close as Vey would get) sums our lead up as an amoral lawyer who paints his sleazy clients as though they were saints in order to win settlements that net him obscene amounts of money.

In response, Vey bets this friend in question that he'll be next to be named a judge yet declines to request a reward to collect in the wager since as he sneers, his friend has nothing that Vey could possibly want. Nonetheless, we soon discover that because he's a man who runs on “greed, ambition and alcohol,” Vey will always find something new to acquire just because he can.

Sure enough, this greedy desire initially takes shape as soon as the married Vey's eyes land on his new, beautiful, young secretary Nicky (Doc Martin star Caroline Catz in her breakthrough role) whom, we sense, he's “working” right from the moment he figures out a way to spend time with her after hours.

Predictably, Nicky can't help but be as charmed as those who'd watched the man in court had been earlier in the day. However, although the two share a flirtatious evening, the tenor of their dynamic changes greatly once they arrive back at her apartment. Namely, she's ready to call it a night but he's determined to see his lusty greed through to the end, even if that means going from what he believes is drunken insistence to what Nicky argues (and we concur) is full-out rape.

Mercifully and no doubt fittingly since the miniseries aired on television on both sides of the pond, Gregg handles the situation with taste, ensuring that the sequence isn't gratuitous or exploitative by cutting from the start of something terrifying to what we're left to assume is the heartbreaking aftermath.

While obviously because everything isn't completely spelled out, initially I assumed that some of screenwriter Burke's dramatic conflict was going to stem from the ambiguity over what actually happened during that fateful night. And as I watched, I imagined The Guilty would take the shape of a dramatically super-charged combination of a Grisham paranoid David vs. Goliath thriller blended together with Mamet's controversial play Oleanna, which never fails to divide audiences much like Shanley's Doubt regarding what it is (we think) we've just seen.

However, because Burke begins to intertwine a second, seemingly unrelated storyline concerning a recently imprisoned young car thief (Sean Gallagher) who discovers that the staunch, conservative vicar he'd called “dad” isn't actually his father (one guess who really is!), The Guilty instead goes into overly convenient, illogical autopilot.

In a work that could be dubbed A British Tragedy rather than our American one, Burke opts for what makes a bigger statement rather than what makes the most sense as all of the characters intersect in the inferior second half of what had initially started out to be a superb Acorn Media DVD miniseries.

While admittedly, a strictly vague “he said/she said” approach to the central crime probably wouldn't have felt very fresh given the fact that The Guilty debuted in the era of so many Michael Douglas “Prince of Darkness” sexual revolution in reverse movies from Fatal Attraction to Basic Instinct to Disclosure, it's still incredibly disheartening, dissatisfying and disingenuous to see what develops.

Needless to say, Kitchen is particularly arresting given the chance to show his full range here as opposed to just playing the brave champion of the forgotten as Christopher Foyle. Unfortunately, Burke over-estimates our willingness to shift the focus of The Guilty when Vey is predictably named the country's newest and youngest judge and instead of ramping up the tension, eventually Nicky's plotline is tossed by the wayside.

While it seems that tragedy is inevitable, The Guilty turns into a tragic case of a truly bad second act as it promotes a genuinely unlikable supporting character to become a romantic leading lady and opts for an emotionally false, logically abysmal protracted ending that needlessly goes on twenty minutes too long.

Likewise in choosing sentiment and second chances that border on misogynistic over either cold justice or thought-provoking irony, The Guilty results in a mistrial by – much like its polished Shakespeare spouting attorney – talking a good game but being afraid to follow through to win us over with intellect instead of theatrics.

Note: Keeping the same title, in 2000, director Anthony Waller and screenwriter William Davies remade The Guilty as a feature-length film starring Bill Pullman, Devon Sawa and Gabrielle Anwar. As of publication of this review, Waller's version is available to stream instantly for free on Netflix.

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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.