The Trick, review: Jason Watkins does his best in dull climate change 'thriller'

Jason Watkins and Victoria Hamilton starred in The Trick - BBC
Jason Watkins and Victoria Hamilton starred in The Trick - BBC

You may remember the Climategate affair. But you probably didn’t see it as fodder for a “thriller”, which is what BBC One called The Trick, their dramatisation of events.

The details, briefly, are these: in 2009, hackers stole thousands of emails and documents from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit. Climate change deniers used the contents to suggest that the unit – and specifically its chief scientist, Prof Philip Jones – had rigged the data to exaggerate an increase in temperatures.

The focus of this 90-minute drama was on Prof Jones, played by Jason Watkins. A few years ago, Watkins played Christopher Jefferies, who was wrongly implicated in the murder of Joanna Yeates, and the two roles were similar: men who found themselves falsely accused and trapped in a nightmare, feeling under siege and powerless to change the narrative.

Watkins is a reliably good actor, but here he was let down by a terrible screenplay. Writer Owen Sheers is an award-winning poet, novelist and playwright, but television is not his medium. The story is inherently uncinematic, so any screenplay needed to work hard to hold our attention. What we got was endless exposition and ropy dialogue.

Watkins spent most of the film in a state of silent shock at what had happened to him, which meant that his wife (Victoria Hamilton) got a lot of screen time instead. Unfortunately, Sheers made her very dull. Worst character of all, though, was George Mackay as the world’s least cynical PR man, who seemed constantly on the verge of tears when contemplating the future of the planet for his daughters. This suggested that Sheers hasn’t spent too much time around people who work in crisis management.

What should have been a character study of a man in the eye of a storm kept trying to be a thriller, complete with urgent music and a countdown to avert disaster – but when the potential disaster in question is an unsatisfactory appearance before a House of Commons select committee, the jeopardy isn’t exactly off the scale.

Prof Jones was eventually exonerated by that committee, and deserves our sympathy for an ordeal that saw him receive death threats and contemplate suicide. But if you’re going to turn that story into a thriller, you need a villain – and here there was just a vague conclusion that the leak was the work of the Russians or the Saudis or “the same people” who denied the dangers of tobacco or acid rain. And when you consider that the BBC comes in for flak every time it touches the subject of climate change, this drama really wasn’t worth the hassle.