The BBC had a “mixed” festive period, which is to say there was good (A Very British Scandal), bad (Around the World in 80 Days) and ugly (Mrs Brown’s Boys). So it’s a relief to see the terrestrial flagship cruise into 2022 with a corker. The Tourist (BBC One) is Jamie Dornan’s blockbuster return to his old The Fall stomping ground, albeit in rather different circumstances.
At the start of the first episode his unnamed character, The Man, rugged of countenance and broad of shoulder, is pelting across the Australian outback in a banged-up old hatchback. We don’t know who he is, where he’s going or where he’s been, only that he’s Irish and needs the loo. A petrol station attendant asks him to sign for the key. People have driven off with it before. After Dornan’s character, relieved, pulls off of the forecourt, a huge truck driven by another strange man, this one wearing cowboy boots, looms up behind him and starts bumping into him. The two vehicles veer off the road duel in the dust.
Shocking violence, off-kilter wit and enigmatic men in petrol stations, all in a vast and empty landscape. So far, so Coen Brothers. It’s entertainment, for sure, but is it original?
Luckily, this new six-part drama, written by another set of brothers, Harry and Jack Williams, soon emerges as its own beast. After being hit by the truck, The Man wakes up in hospital with no idea of who he is, what he was doing there or why people seem out to bump him off. England’s batsmen might sympathise.
The plot develops rapidly through the opening episode, as The Man tries to work out what is going on. There’s a large bear of a villain, Billy (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), on his tail, whistling creepily as he goes. Somewhere else is a man trapped in a barrel, connected to our hero, although we don’t know how. The police are intrigued, in the form of Helen Chambers (Danielle Macdonald), on her first real job after moving over from traffic. She’s earnest and awkward, with hints of deep-lying tenacity. Then there’s Luci (Shalom Brune-Franklin, best known from Line of Duty), a beautiful stranger The Man meets at a diner moments before it blows up. Both women give memorable performances, balancing all the Ozzie blokishness.
In another production, these elements might feel rushed, but The Tourist, directed by Chris Sweeney (and Daniel Nettheim for the final three episodes), knows how to play the quiet scenes alongside the crash and bang. Like all good westerns, it takes time to establish the geography, not only the desert but the sad little towns through which The Man passes as he pieces together what has happened. His plight doesn’t strip him, or the script, of a sense of humour. Sipping a cold beer, he wonders if he will discover he was an alcoholic. Later, on discovering he has amnesia, a singlet-clad man exclaims: “Mate, that is awesome.” Not very Memento.
Despite the excellent supporting performances, inevitably The Tourist depends on Dornan. Given that the plot revolves around his not remembering anything, he gives his nameless character a surprisingly vivid sense of inner life. In general, he is a more interesting and frankly weirder actor than some people – me, for instance – have given him credit for in the past. If we excuse him that business with the whips – and it would be churlish to deny any actor such a satisfying trip to the bank – he is building an enviably eclectic career. In the past few years he’s taken on A Private War, Wild Mountain Thyme and the upcoming Belfast. The path is reminiscent of Robert Pattinson, another from this side of the Atlantic who leveraged a blockbuster, in his case Twilight, into picking interesting parts with proper directors.
The Tourist might be his best work yet. He takes advantage of a script that lets him stretch his metaphorical muscles as well as the more literal ones, abundant as they are. For a mysterious stranger, he is impressively well rounded beneath his thick beard: relentless, bewildered, cool, charming, scabrous, and terrified according to the situation. Whoever this tourist is, it will be fun finding out.