The Hour, the latest British import being aired by BBC-America, has cast a wide net when it comes to potential audiences. The biggest draw is the 1950s time period; set at the BBC in 1956, The Hour follows three brash employees of the titular news show. But there is also an espionage plot, a feminist storyline, a stirring look at dedicated journalists and a love triangle to go with the visual trappings. And what trappings they are! Every color is vivid in a muted, British sort of way set against London’s grayness. The Hour is what Broadcast News would have been in the ’50s, is Albert Brooks had been a willowy, brilliantined Brit.
Charged with creating a fresh 60-minute investigative news program, producing prodigy Bel Rowley (Romola Garai, expressing her impotent fury at being patronized for being a women with just the way she walks in heels) brings along her best friend, the brilliant and mercurial journalist Lyon (Ben Whishaw) to give the charming, shallow anchor Hector (Dominic West) gravitas. Lyon is more interested in a mysterious murder a friend told him about before her “suicide.” That murder comes equipped with secret messages hidden in crossword puzzles and a trick cigarette; no wonder Lyon ignores the Suez Canal crisis to dig deeper.
Patience is rewarded in The Hour, particularly after the first installment, which takes its time in crafting characters rather than developing plot. Bel and Lyon’s relationship, in which pecks on the cheek take on monumental significance, is subtler and deeper than two thirds of a love triangle normally are. And Bel’s push-pull attraction to the married Hector is based less on sexual attraction than on mutual recognition of brashness disguising vulnerability. West, after years playing slivers of supporting roles, is perfectly cast as a ’50s matinee looker; coiffed with a razor-edged side part and playing with cigarettes and umbrellas with a masculine precision, West finally blossoms into the romantic leading man he always promised to be.
Whishaw and Garai are certainly his match. Both of them skirt the dark undercurrents of Mad Men’s cast to create careful, oddball characters who have much more going on than their dialogue admits. Garai, in particular, manages with extreme caution to portray Bel as a something more complex than a woman, good at her job in the restricted 1950s, who is merely torn between work and love. She has small moments of triumph—quoting Latin to an odious member of the government then exasperatedly telling him to look it up when she gets a blank look in return—and scenes in which the strain of her job takes its toll.
Whishaw doesn’t dig deep like Garai, but in his hands Lyon becomes an arch, heartsick journalist who has never found a filter that fit his mouth. He routinely tells off the people around him, from hector to a potential employer to Bel herself. But he’s like a terrier when it comes to a story, and no one ever claimed that stellar journalists made for good company. Backed by a supporting cast tweaking the clichés of a newsroom and espionage thrillers, The Hour will fly like minutes.
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