Midwinter of the Spirit: Review: Episode 3

phil 4Saints preserve us! Dark forces are gathering…

The final episode of Stephen Volk’s adaptation of Phil Rickman’s novel pulls all the various strands together, leading to two gripping sequences set in Hereford Cathedral itself – the first during the Boy Bishop ceremony, when Merrily is battling not just for her daughter’s life, but also for Rowena’s soul, and then later on the rooftop during the final confrontation with the murderer of Canon Dobbs (or Cannon Dobbs as IMDB rather unfortunately calls him!). The killer’s behaviour has been a little odd throughout the story but Volk has brought out the humanity in all the characters embroiled in the tale, and even the most pious clergy stray from the path occasionally…

The scale of the production is clear from the first sequence – a cathedral full of people, special effects for the reappearance of Denzil Joy – but it was a very sensible choice to bring it down to just the key players (Rowena, Jane, Joy and Merrily) for the majority of that scene. Darkness looms over Merrily as she admits her own failings but continues to fight for what she believes, and it’s telling that it’s Rowena to whom she offers comfort at the end of the scene, not her own daughter. One suspects that the relationship between Merrily and Jane is going to take more than just the one hug in the teenager’s bedroom to recover from this.

Anna Maxwell Martin has been consistently credible as Merrily, and this episode has showcased her talents – from the lassitude of the earlier scenes to the fight she displays when she and Huw put all the pieces together and she has to desperately get to the cathedral. David Threlfall is given more chance to shine in this episode than previously, Huw’s apparent irreverence masking a deep faith. And there’s also a very strong performance from Sally Messham as Jane, particularly in scenes where she has to communicate emotions without the benefit of dialogue. One of the major strengths of this series has been its casting, with Siobhan Finneran walking a fine line with a part that could easily have become hokey (a la K9 and Company!), and Doc Brown suitably earnest but never cloyingly so as Lol.

Edmund Butt’s music has been spot-on, veering from occasional atonality into a full classical and choral sound as the scenes have demanded. It’d be interesting to listen to it separate from the visuals (that’s a hint, Silva Screen!).

Producer Phil Collinson, director Richard Clark and adapter Volk have achieved their aim of bringing Phil Rickman’s characters and situations forward into contemporary times (will they dare have a female bishop as Merrily playfully suggests at the end of the episode?). The police element may not have been as much to the fore as in some such crime dramas, but the blend of genuinely creepy moments and all-too-credible evil has been highly effective. We can but hope that the ratings are sufficient for ITV to commission a fresh story. A Crown of Lights next?

Verdict: An excellent end to a thoroughly enjoyable drama. 9/10

Paul Simpson

Click here for our review of episode 1

and here for episode 2.

We interview producer Phil Collinson here

and writer Stephen Volk here (part 1)  and here (part 2)



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