There’s lots of excitement around The Third Day, which stars Jude Law and will feature a complicated-sounding live theatre element in October. But that buzz of anticipation evaporates remarkably quickly in a dull and baffling first episode that maroons Law on a remote, sinister island brimming with the obligatory creepy locals who are just a single entendre away from a Fast Show sketch. Throughout, the going is glum rather than unsettling, dull instead of brooding.
Utopia writer Dennis Kelly and Felix Barrett of experimental theatre company Punchdrunk appear to be aiming for a postmodern mishmash of The Wicker Man, Midsommar and HP Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth. As Sam (Law) mooches around, there is also a whiff of one of those old “point and click” video games where you spend all your time traipsing from room to room collecting clues.
As directed by Marc Munden, it’s sumptuous to behold yet slow to the point of meandering (an early scene of Sam wandering through the woods listening to Florence and the Machine threatens to go on and on). The question arises pretty quickly as to whether The Third Day is being purposefully oblique or if there has been a conscious decision to prioritise ambience over plot.
Hints are dropped now and then that Sam may not be quite as upstanding as he’s letting on. He’s the protagonist in the three-part “Summer” component of the series. This is to be followed on 3 October by the live, 12-hour “Autumn” broadcast. It will be filmed in a single take and promises to “blur and distort the lines between what's real and what’s not” (so… just like normal life nowadays). The curtain is then brought down by “Winter”, another three-parter, starring Naomie Harris (and co-written by novelist Kit de Waal).
There is clearly something afoot with the townsfolk of Osea, a real-life island lying in the estuary of the River Blackwater. The weirdos include a hotel-owning couple portrayed by Paddy Considine and Emily Watson. They worship Celtic Gods, exchange ominous gestures when Sam isn’t watching and have a complicated mythology involving salt and soil. None of which is enough to frighten the viewer or mobilise the sort of dread conjured so effectively in The Wicker Man (to which The Third Day is so unashamedly indebted that it feels like the Complete Stone Roses or Australian Pink Floyd of spooky telly).
Kelly is clearly setting the pieces on the board in this opening instalment. And it is entirely possible next month’s live component, overseen by Barrett and Punchdrunk, will compensate for a rather listless preamble. But, taken on its own, the first hour of The Third Day is all wind-up and no pay-off.
The Third Day also lumbers its lead character with a pretty convoluted backstory. Sam is a distraught former teacher or childcare worker (we’re left guessing) who has suffered a tragedy in the past involving a family member (again details are scant). He and his wife are moving on with their lives and hope to open a new garden centre. Awkwardly, the planning officer whom they need to bribe has apparently faked a burglary and run off with their money.
Garden centre planning disputes are rarely the stuff of riveting TV. Fortunately, the backstory is of only passing relevance (at least until the final reveal that naughty Sam actually has the cash stuffed in the boot of his car). More pressing is that fact that Sam, while sulking in the woods and listening to Florence, witnesses a young girl apparently trying to hang herself with the assistance of a boy.
The boy scatters and the girl, Epona (Jessie Ross), denies he ever existed. Sam brings her back to her home on Osea. In reality, the island is not permanently inhabited, though Rihanna spent some time there on a songwriting retreat and it used to house a rehab clinic attended by Amy Winehouse.
But surely the weirdest fact about it is that it is owned by the music producer who put together Sugababes. The sinister townsfolk are, as it happens, organising a music festival of their own. The shindig is to be open to the public for the first time (this you suspect will feature in the live broadcast – who knows, Florence and the Machine might even be there?). Sam also meets Katherine Waterston’s Jess, another outsider interested in the area’s pre-Christian heritage.
The Third Day is quite gory. Sam finds a ritualistically dismembered furry creature in the grass early on. Later, after spending a night in Osea’s only boozer when the tide cuts off the road to the mainland, he wanders about in a daze and appears to see some chopped-up body parts. It’s ghoulishly shot and the camera has fun exploring the seams and crevices in Law’s terrified face.
The problem is that the uncanny Wiccan hamlet, full of people in animal masks and weaponised Morris dancers, is a cliche that has already been flogged to death (and really cannot be presented with a straight face in the wake of League of Gentlemen). Law’s character, meanwhile, is too dull for us to care what he’s secretly up to. Fireworks may follow further down the line as the pagan festival kicks off in Osea. For now, though, this isn’t so much Burning Man in Essex as a prestige TV damp squib.