Under the Banner of Heaven, review: Andrew Garfield can't elevate this murky Mormon mystery

Andrew Garfield as Detective Jeb Pyre in Under the Banner of Heaven
A fair cop: Andrew Garfield as Detective Jeb Pyre in Under the Banner of Heaven - Michelle Faye

Whither the art of fictional TV crime? It feels like most new whodunits nowadays fall into the increasingly crowded genre of “true-crime drama”. Try not to roll your eyes but here comes yet another series plundered from news headlines, rather than a writer’s imagination. At least Under the Banner of Heaven (Disney+) is about an intriguingly unfamiliar case.

Based on journalist Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book, this ambitious production traces events leading up to the grisly 1984 murders of religious leader’s daughter Brenda Wright Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter in suburban Salt Lake Valley. Sadly, a twist-packed story and the presence of several Britons among the starry cast (Andrew Garfield, Daisy Edgar-Jones, Billy Howle) fail to elevate it above the ho-hum humdrum.

Arriving at the crime scene to find mother and infant with their throats cut, Detective Jeb Pyre (Garfield, who recently received an Emmy nomination for the role), a devout Mormon, breaks down in tears and prays. As he probes the Lafferty family - a respected dynasty dubbed “the Kennedys of Utah” into which Brenda married - Pyre uncovers disturbing truths about the Latter Day Saints religion’s roots.

Normal People’s Edgar-Jones is luminous as aspiring newsreader Brenda, seen in flashback as a free spirit who ruffles feathers within the insular patriarchal community. The prime suspect for her brutal slaying is her blood-spattered husband, Allen (The Serpent’s Howle), the youngest of six Lafferty brothers. When he points the finger at “men with Old Testament beards”, it leads Pyre down a religious rabbit hole.

As he delves deep into fundamentalism, polygamy and “blood atonement”, Pyre begins to question his own faith. But his burgeoning friendship with hard-bitten sidekick Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham), a laconic Native American from Las Vegas, is beautifully portrayed and provides welcome flashes of wit amid the gloom.

The first five episodes of seven were made available for review. What soon becomes clear is that, as it leaps between several timelines, the series gets bogged down in its own backstory. Historical segments about Mormonism’s founding father Joseph Smith don’t just feel surplus to requirements but with their dodgy wigs, verge on Blackadder-style spoof.

Unsurprisingly, the series - like the book before it - has been subject to a backlash from the Mormon church for harshly portraying it as misogynistic, violent and cult-like. Not one but two sequences featuring cruelty to dogs are also upsetting.

This is a passion project for Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black - husband of Olympic diver Tom Daley - who was raised Mormon. He spent a decade developing Krakauer’s book for the screen, initially as a feature film. When it was commissioned for TV instead, Black let the story sprawl too much. Ultimately, this has the sheen of prestige TV without ever quite delivering.