Criminal Record review: When Peter Capaldi and Cush Jumbo face off, it’s hard not to hold your breath

Glance at the filmography of most acclaimed actors and you’re likely to see the odd stint as a TV detective. Stars of a certain vintage tend to have done their time frowning in front of a whiteboard covered in red string and rummaging through old case files while drinking whiskey. It’s practically a form of National Service at this point. But over the course of a 40-year career in acting, Peter Capaldi has never played a cop – until now.

His turn in Apple TV+’s Criminal Record feels worth the wait, though, and it’s only elevated by an equally impressive performance from Cush Jumbo that matches his intensity exactly; when the two of them face off, it’s hard not to hold your breath. In another, cosier police procedural, this pairing might have ended up as an “odd couple” detective duo, with Jumbo’s young, principled sergeant teaching Capaldi’s gruff chief inspector a thing or two about the modern world, and him imparting a few nuggets of old-school wisdom in return. But this eight-part thriller, created by Indian Summers writer Paul Rutman, is definitely not that show: it’s much nastier and, therefore, much more realistic.

A relatively new recruit to the Met Police’s CID, Jumbo’s DS June Lenker is idealistic and dogged in her pursuit of the truth, although Rutman’s script allows us to see that idealism being tempered almost in real time, as she is repeatedly ground down: by admin, by repeated meetings with two robotic colleagues from the Professional Services department, by microaggressions (like a fellow cop, played by Shaun Dooley, cracking a thudding “joke” about confusing June with her one other Black female colleague).

She’s asked to review an anonymous 999 call from a phone box in Hackney, in which a woman claims that her abusive boyfriend has admitted to killing another woman back in 2011, and is using this to taunt and threaten her. The nameless caller has all the pertinent details from the case – the victim’s injuries, the prison in which the man convicted is being held, and the sentence he was given. After a little digging, June realises the caller is referring to the murder of somebody named Adelaide Burrows, whose boyfriend, Errol Mathis, was charged and locked up for 24 years.

Could Mathis (played by Tom Moutchi) have been wrongly convicted? The senior officer in charge of the investigation was Detective Chief Inspector Daniel Hegarty (Capaldi), who is very much one of the Met’s old guard, with a squad of work cronies past and present (including Dooley’s DS Kim Cardwell and Charlie Creed-Miles’s DS Tony Gilfoyle) willing to do his bidding. Unsurprisingly, Hegarty is less than willing to reopen the case file when June turns up at his office to inform him of this potential development. Surely it was a prank call, he argues, not least because all of the details of Burrows’s death are in the public domain, and have been for years.

Their first showdown is a masterclass in passive aggression, with each circling the other and trying to find a weak spot, disguising their efforts with a veneer of faux-politeness and police protocol. There’s not a trace of Malcolm Tucker’s vituperative shoutiness in Capaldi’s performance: Hegarty is a much quieter, perhaps even more insidious creature, who barely raises his voice throughout. June is particularly perturbed when Hegarty dismissively refers to Mathis as “the poor man’s OJ”, although when she recounts it to her psychiatrist husband Leo (Stephen Campbell Moore), he implies she’s overreacting.

Why is Hegarty so loath to admit he might have got the Mathis case wrong? And why does he supplement his presumably pretty comfortable DCI salary with a gig moonlighting as a high-end chauffeur, a job he clearly hates (in the opening scene, as he ferries an overly chatty, conspicuously wealthy couple to a party, you can practically feel the chilly disdain emanating from Capaldi)? After a shocking incident in an east London park, June is able to sign up to work alongside Hegarty, to better observe him at close range, and with the help of Mathis’s zero bulls*** lawyer Sonya Singh (a standout Aysha Kala), she starts trying to unpick the holes in the original murder case.

The plot has the requisite number of twists, turns and genuinely shocking moments, but perhaps the cleverest thing about Criminal Record is the matter-of-fact way it presents the rot seeping through the Met. It comments on the state of policing without any Line of Duty theatrics: we don’t get slightly cartoonish “bent copper” reveals, because it’s a given that Hegarty and co are dodgy. And Rutman dramatises the gap between the image the police force is striving to present (June is strong-armed into appearing in a press conference at the last minute after Hegarty and her superior officers mutter furiously about optics) and the reality of working within it. There are a handful of references to dubious WhatsApp groups and “lively” messages, and Dooley’s character refers to June as “Meghan Markle”.

But perhaps what’s most disturbing about Hegarty is that he can’t just be dismissed as a dinosaur; he’s fluent in all the relevant HR briefings about diversity and inclusion and is able to turn them back on June. At one point, he secures a temporary victory by accusing her of unconscious bias. He’s a very modern adversary and the perfect match for Jumbo in this searing two-hander. Don’t let the plodding title put you off: Criminal Record is anything but your average police drama by numbers.