By Ellen Fasham
Critics cannot stop raving about The Tourist, the BBC’s latest six-part thriller-drama-dark comedy starring Jamie Dornan. The unique premise established in the first episode makes this praise feel, at first, entirely understandable. After losing his memory in a crash, Dornan’s nameless character ‘The Man’ travels the Australian outback in an effort to discover the identity of both his attempted murderers and himself. This double mystery brings a renewed energy to the amnesia trope, and, combined with the adrenaline of an early high-speed chase and the uneasy openness of the outback setting, the first episode feels captivatingly original.
However, the series relies too heavily on the intrigue which is intrinsically built into the amnesia premise. The show sets up huge questions and implicitly promises their answers, and indeed while the final two episodes offered a gratifying resolution, the slow pacing of the middle episodes risked losing viewers’ attention. Initially, this slowness worked well. In the first episode, the fast drama and action of the show is brilliantly balanced against the slow, awkward style of comedy. The emptiness of the outback is mirrored by the heavy lacunae in the dialogue, creating a bizarre yet brilliant comedic style that fosters elements of absurdism. The dark, absurdist comedy remains perhaps the show’s strongest element throughout, but there is simply not enough of it to make up for the series’ dwindling drama. While film history buffs might continue to enjoy the subtle surrealist influences, the series tries too hard to be original. Other neglected aspects, such as the slow storyline, implausible situations, and occasionally stilted script might cause viewers to drift towards disinterest.
The Tourist is centred on a simple mystery: who are the ‘bad guys’? While the plot focuses on uncovering the identity of The Man’s attempted murderers, the question of why The Man is being hunted in the first place also pushes to the foreground. Was The Man also a ‘bad guy’ before he lost his memory? As the show progresses, this question develops into a thematic material explored through almost all the other characters in the series. Bad actions are motivated by good intentions and visa-versa, and indeed this moral obscurity contributes both to richly developed characters and a strong exploration of themes of ethical disjuncture and identity.
This thematic exploration is enabled by the strength of the cast. Dornan’s rugged and steely performance aligns well with the series’ darkly vacuous tone. Dornan brings a crackling energy to The Man’s introverted personality, working with the relatively minimal dialogue to present a character which feels constantly on the edge of implosion. Acting opposite him is Danielle Macdonald with her portrayal of Helen Chambers, the sweet local police officer who gets unexpectedly caught up in a case far beyond her previous experience as a traffic warden. Macdonald provides a much-needed warmth to the series through her nuanced and expressive portrayal of Helen, making up for moments when the script can come off as slightly cheesy.
The Tourist demonstrates an originality which television critics have understandably gone wild for, but this does not make up for its weaker aspects. To me, the twentieth-century absurdist influences felt disjointed and simply a bit odd, and the thematic material was only thought-provoking once I began to look for it. However, the greatest shame is the wasted potential of the first episode. As the show progresses, it loses pace and becomes over reliant on its premise to keep viewers hooked. While by no means a bad show, I think I will sadly forget about The Tourist faster than Dornan’s amnesiac character.
Image: Tarryn Myburgh via Unsplash