Presumed Innocent review: Jake Gyllenhaal’s legal thriller remake is criminally bland

The American criminal justice system is a scary place. Not only for those in the dock facing the consequences of their actions or aiming for absolution, but for those on the benches in front of them, too. Presumed Innocent, a new eight-part thriller from AppleTV+, is a story of role reversal, where those who usually handle the interrogation find their own lives suddenly under the microscope.

Jake Gyllenhaal is Rusty Sabich, a fierce prosecutor working in the criminal courts of Chicago. His career is augmented by a seemingly idyllic homelife with his wife, Barbara (Ruth Negga), and their two telegenic children. All of this evaporates with a single phone call informing Rusty that his colleague Carolyn (Renate Reinsve) has been found brutally murdered. As Rusty gets to work on the state’s case, certain details start to emerge. Not only were Rusty and Carolyn sexually involved but she was pregnant with his child. “I will fight to save what we have,” Barbara tells her husband. “But you need to stop loving her.” That struggle becomes increasingly hard as, slowly but surely, Rusty’s former colleagues turn on him, and he becomes the prime suspect in the case.

Presumed Innocent is the latest instalment in the evergrowing oeuvre of David E Kelley (more on that shortly) and another adaptation of Scott Turow’s 1987 novel, which was previously the source of a 1990 Harrison Ford film (which, in turn, spawned a mini-series, The Burden of Proof, and a sequel, Innocent). Which is to say that this is quite familiar territory for consumers of American pop culture over the past few decades. Even the sight of Bill Camp as Raymond Horgan (a world-weary defence attorney going in for “one last case”) and Peter Sarsgaard as Tommy Molto (an ambitious but sleazy prosecutor, or “a real d***” in Rusty’s words) feel intensely familiar.

At the centre of it all is Gyllenhaal, taking on a role previously played by Ford and Bill Pullman, and offering an unshowy, vaguely plausible performance. Sure, he’s unusually ripped for someone who spends most of his day in strip-lit municipal buildings, but he knows how to rock a pair of spectacles. More interesting is Negga’s Barbara, a wide-eyed naif with a seeming capacity for mercy. “You want to disappear into this case,” she warns Rusty. “You will disappear, and you will go silent.” But as the case proceeds – throwing up twists and turns, not to mention salacious details about spermatozoa and bondage – both Gyllenhaal and Negga struggle to make much impression on a show that feels as neatly and flimsily assembled as flatpack furniture.

Much of the issue lies with the show’s creator, Kelley, who came to prominence as the progenitor of Ally McBeal and Boston Legal. He knows the ropes, then, but has become so intensely prolific in recent years (profiting off the streaming wars by working with Netflix, HBO Max, Amazon, Disney+, Hulu and now AppleTV+) that much of his output is bilge. Since 2017’s Big Little Lies, Kelley has created only a few decent works of television (The Lincoln Lawyer, say, or Love & Death) and a bunch of rubbish (Nine Perfect Strangers, Anatomy of a Scandal, The Undoing, Big Sky). It’s hardly any surprise that his output is so hit and miss: in the time since Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman lit up the Monterey moms’ club, Kelley has created a dozen new series.

It might be time to give someone – literally anyone – else a go. Presumed Innocent isn’t bad, per se, but it’s bland. The writing and performances feel as though they’re going through the motions (“I’m not a liar,” Rusty tells his therapist; “Well, you are,” she replies, in a way that typifies much of the “he said, she said” nature of the dialogue). Reinsve, who was so brilliant in The Worst Person in the World, is underused in the role of the victim, appearing mainly half-dressed in fragmentary flashbacks. She and Negga are two of the most underrated actors in Hollywood. It seems plausible that in a few years’ time, AppleTV+ might look back at Presumed Innocent as a real missed opportunity.

Or maybe it’ll be content with Kelley’s stolid storytelling, which might not trouble the awards ceremonies but will satisfy the floating viewer. What’s clear is that the streamer was shooting for something like Sky’s The Night Of, a brooding 2016 thriller set in the New York justice system. But Presumed Innocent fails to be anything like it – nowhere near as shocking, sexy or satisfying. With this much investment and this much talent, such a misfire feels almost criminal.