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Finding Alison: An Advance Review of "Place of Execution" on PBS' "Masterpiece Contemporary"

Every now and then a mini-series comes along that just sucks you in by the sheer force of its spellbinding story.

Such is the case with the sensational British mini-series Place of Execution, airing Stateside in a two-episode format that begins this Sunday as part of PBS' Masterpiece Contemporary. From its haunting opening minutes to the truly and horrifically shocking final scenes, Place of Execution is a thriller which will remain with you long after the closing credits have rolled.

Anchored by three incredible performances, Place of Execution--written by Patrick Harbison and Val McDermid (and based on the latter's novel) and directed by Daniel Percival--takes place both in the present-day as well as in 1963 rural England as two very different investigators explore the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl who vanished without a trace one winter afternoon in 1963. Told in two overlapping and interlocking plots, the story telescopes outwards from that fateful day to ensnare the lives of several people obsessed with the case.

Place of Execution is a gripping and provocative glimpse into the choices we make in our lives, the events that shape us, and the hold that obsession has over us. It's also a terrifying look into the heart of darkness lurking behind the hedgerows of a seemingly idyllic English village. Just what happened that afternoon to young Alison Carter is, as they say, in the eye of the beholder.

In 1963, the inexplicable disappearance of wealthy teenager Alison Carter triggers a manhunt in the sleepy farming village where she lives. As the snow begins to fall and clues begin to mount, university-educated Detective Inspector George Bennett (Lee Ingleby), an outsider in a village of farmers, becomes hell-bent on finding Alison before she is killed and locating the perpetrator of this heinous crime when it quickly becomes clear that Alison may have been the victim of something far worse than just kidnapping. As Bennett doggedly questions Alison's parents, the well-heeled Ruth (Emma Cunniffe) and Philip Hawkin (Greg Wise), class distinctions, prejudices, and misdirection soon become shockingly clear.

Bennett's quest to find Alison's attacker plants a seed of obsession inside him and the Alison Carter case propels him to great heights over the course of his career. In the present day, a much-older George Bennett (Philip Jackson) is a participant in a documentary film about the Alison Carter case that is being directed by filmmaker Catherine Heathcote (Juliet Stevenson), a gifted documentarian whose skill with the camera and her subjects is sadly greater than her maternal instincts. We first see Catherine as she's forced to post bail for her fifteen-year-old daughter Sasha (Elizabeth Day), accused of vandalizing some local businesses.

And that's where the story begins. Old George Bennett is able to pull some strings with the local constabulary to get Sasha released but the cooperative former copper stuns Catherine by saying that he's pulling out of the film and refuses to discuss the Alison Carter case any further, saying that mistakes were made in the investigation. It's Bennett's silence that spurs Catherine to action as she begins to pour over the evidence once again in order to find out what has provoked Bennett's sudden reluctance.

Catherine's investigation in the present-day dovetails quite nicely with that of DI Bennett's in 1963 as the duo conduct their own explorations of the townspeople and Alison Carter's disappearance. As each of them does so, the audience is invited along for the ride but certain clues take on new meaning in the harsh light of present-day scrutiny, leading Catherine and the audience to believe that not everything about the Alison Carter investigation was as it seemed.

I'm loath to say more about Place of Execution's plot because it is a corker of a story, a first-rate thriller that will have you guessing from start to finish.

As mentioned before, the piece is brought to life by three compelling performances from leads Juliet Stevenson, Lee Ingleby, and Greg Wise, the latter of whom turns out an eerie performance as Alison's icy and domineering stepfather at the manor house, a social pariah who views himself as above the muck and rabble of the village. Ingleby is absolutely perfectly cast as the grimly determined George Bennett, who has himself, perhaps in an homage to Otto Preminger's noir masterpiece Laura, fallen in love with the missing Alison Carter.

Juliet Stevenson, meanwhile, anchors the entire piece with her all-consuming need for the Truth, at any cost. Her performance is stunningly nuanced as she allows Catherine to be both truth-seeker and muckraker at the same time; a mass of flaws and inconsistencies who is searching for a girl long-missing but can't see her own daughter crying out for help in front of her.

Ultimately, Place of Execution is gorgeously directed, written, and acted and is perhaps one of the finest thrillers on the large or small screen, forcing the audience to come to terms with our own preconceptions, notions, and investigative instincts. You'd be wise to fall under its dangerous spells now before the inevitable American big-screen adaptation.

Place of Execution airs Sunday, November 1st and Sunday, November 8th as part of PBS' Masterpiece Contemporary. Check your local listings for details.


Bella Spruce said…
I love a good, British mystery and this looks like it fits the bill. Thank you for the review. I will definitely be tuning in!
Samaire said…
Juliet Stevenson is fantastic. I'm really looking forward to this and am loving Masterpiece Contemporary. They've done an incredible job!
Chris said…
I saw this one last fall in the UK and it's also pretty good. Not as good as "Occupation", which is up there for me in the top 10 hours of tv I've watched this year, but still excellent. I really wish American television did more of this: short-run miniseries with utterly compelling storylines (the kind of brilliant, creative, genius plotlines that cannot be sustained over 22 episodes and five or so seasons) done by the best actors we've got.

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