2 out of 5
Directed by: Niall MacCormick
This is too often the case with these true-life UK procedural crime retellings: an interesting core story and wonderful actors are hampered by an unclear focus and poor pacing. Real life being difficult to package into easy takeaways, the material is poked and prodded to give it a protagonist, or an emotional hook, but being beholden to set plot points that must be made, and newsbyte-informed characterizations, doesn’t necessarily serve the fictionalized constructs well.
Deceit tells the story of the investigation into the brutal stabbing of Rachel Nichols in a public park in the early 90s. We pick up on the matter after-the-fact: the police have already had their main suspect, Colin Stagg (Sion Daniel Young), in for questioning and have released him. Now, based on the profile of college professor Paul Britton (Eddie Marsan), the DI in charge of the case, Keith Pedder (Harry Treadaway), has brought in undercover operative Sadie (Niamh Algar) to play into Stagg’s interests – via letters, then phone calls, then meetings – in the hopes of encouraging Stagg to admit to the stabbing.
The series has a strong visual identity from director Niall MacCormick and cinematographer Jan Jonaeus, which gives the 1992 London in which these officers operate a sickly, woozy look – an effect which is especially played up whenever Sadie is doing dives into the underworld as part of her profession, or when trying to understand, with the professor’s help, Stagg’s potential motivations. And writer Emilia di Girolamo frames some of this in gender politics: Sadie’s efforts on the force are quite overlooked, despite being key on however many undercover jobs, until she’s needed for whichever particular job – acting as a honeypot in this case – and then suddenly she’s the flavor of the month. There’s a similar “discarded” treatment of other female undercovers, it’s suggested, but this is one of the aspects in which Deceit can’t hold a throughline: the first episode tries to rather crassly make a point on all this when Sadie jokingly tells one of her mates to not get raped on the job, but this bluntness is nowhere else present in the story. It ever-so-briefly comes up again in the final episode, but even this feels very besides the point and dismissive.
The majority of the episodes are thereafter dedicated to the escalations in the sting upon Stagg. Early on, Sadie starts to experience visions of Colin, in her apartment, attacking her; perhaps Deceit will focus on the blurry lines between identity and legend when in this job? And perhaps it might’ve, but again, it’s necessary to keep the facts of the story flowing, so we’re really only stuck with this visual shorthand to show us Sadie’s mental degradation. Throughout the next couple of hours, we’ll note DI Pedder pushing for a confession where it seems none may exist; perhaps this will be a focus on procedural malfeasance, pursuing foregone conclusions. That’s in there too, but the show can’t exactly be too wishy-washy, because it needs to save the investigation’s results for a final episode twist.
And so all of these things are half-steps: the story itself is interesting, but in trying to play it up for dramatic flourish – while remaining respectful of the facts – Deceit stalls, never feeling like it’s actually moving forward until its runtime allows it to do so. A more direct result of this is that the timeline is woefully unapparent: Sadie’s mental breaks; the progression of the case – it apparently takes place over a year, but the series rolls out like it’s happening within a week or so, removing a lot of the weight of the investigation.
The main cast are, by and large, fantastic – Algar and Treadaway are both particularly engaging whenever on screen, but Marsan and Young, though each excellent, are both playing “parts:” Marsan has to play the prof as a certain percentage of creep, and Young has to play Stagg as an oddball. Are these true to what we know of these characters? Perhaps, but they don’t quite come across as real people, either. That said, this casting tends to do the trick: I’m drawn in out of interest in their presence, and then I keep watching, waiting for whichever show – Deceit in this case – to shape up into something that’s both satisfactory in telling a true-crime story, and as a piece of weekly drama. Deceit does neither part of that equation particularly well.