The City and The City, BBC’s latest Drama is a wonderfully bizarre show, adapted for the screen by Tony Grisoni (How I Live Now, Young Pope) from China Miéville’s award-winning series of the same name, that blends the typical police procedural with trippy noir science fiction. The tale is based within the bleak and brutalist Besźel, one of the titular cities, which just happens to share the topographical space with Ul Qoma, the other city, albeit the glossier one. An intriguing sci-fi concept that is a little tricky to get your head around, yet the story itself remains ever poignant. Although it’s perhaps a little hard to see under the blurry and boggling set-up.
After the body of an American exchange student studying in Ul Qoma is found in mysterious circumstances on the border of Besźel Inspector Tyador Borlú (David Morrisey – The Missing, Julius Caesar) takes on the case with his Watson, Constable Corwi (Mandeep Dhillon – Some Girls) – if Watson were a straight-talking, sweary cop that is. How did this girl end up dead in the grimiest areas of Besźel? How did she get past Breach, the secret service dedicated to ensuring the psychological separation of the two cities? And, more importantly, how does this case relate to that of Inspector Borlú’s missing wife?
Ambitious is certainly a word to describe this show.
The main characters of the show are cleverly constructed through typical aspects of the crime genre; Morrisey as Borlú is the isolated and weary detective who is drawn to seeking the truth, even if it means bending the strict rules of both the job and the city, bringing the same calculated characteristics as seen in his stellar performance as Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar. Similarly, Dhillon balances out this detective partnership with her blunt humour, her near-constant stream of swears irritating and amusing to her stern partner in crime. They, like the supporting characters, are easily recognisable and understandable, which is why they work so perfectly in countering the unusual high-concept of the show. If their characters were as singular as their names and their world, the borders for us, the audience, may have been too high.
Where this episode truly excels for me is in the visuals, setting up my hope for a great series run. In order to present the way Besźel citizens see, or unsee, their neighbouring city, the camera pulls out of focus, rendering parts of the world blurry, allowing you the ability to see only that Ul Qoma seems shinier, cleaner, nicer in general. This cloudiness follows through into the other shots, a close up of Morrisey torn between doing what is right and what is legal leaves the edges of frame foggy, his face sometimes wandering into the spaces, keeping you ever aware of the presence of Ul Qoma. And when director Tom Shankland (The Missing, Ripper Street) decides to keep the focus you’re instead presented with dirty shot after dirty shot, allowing you to explore the dreary city on your own and somewhat distances you from the world, almost as if you were watching on from Ul Qoma.
The City and The City takes incredibly intriguing set up and executes it with such care that you can’t help but be pulled in to the wonderfully weird world. The balance between world-building and establishing the investigation is just about hit, though whether you’re supposed to care more about the mystery behind the cities or the murder case is still a little hazy. With the episode ending on a gripping new mystery, there are many reasons to keep on watching!
The City and The City is showing every Friday at 10pm on BBC 2 and available for catch-up on BBC iPlayer!