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Presumed Innocent review – Jake Gyllenhaal gets his first TV role … and it’s impossible to care about it
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Presumed Innocent review – Jake Gyllenhaal gets his first TV role … and it’s impossible to care about it

When the new miniseries Presumed Innocent, based on Scott Turow’s bestselling legal whodunnit, was announced, I scoffed. They made a film of that 10 minutes ago! Harrison Ford being gravelly, Bonnie Bedelia being overlooked, Greta Scacchi being a sex bomb. Except, of course, it turns out that it was 34 years ago. A lot of people in the audience now won’t know whodunnit.

Even so, I’m not sure this is a remake the world is crying out for. I’m not sure the world is crying out for any remakes of legal thrillers. The world would probably prefer original renderings of all kinds of new things. But I am not a commissioner or producer in need of the security of a proven intellectual property and so here we are.

David E Kelley is in charge this time round because – well, because it’s exactly David E Kelley’s kind of thing. Like almost all his outings (especially the recent ones, such as Big Little Lies, The Undoing, Anatomy of a Scandal), we have a central mystery surrounded – and occasionally subsumed – by domestic and professional conflict, set in the glossy world of affluent Americans (here, high-flying lawyers) who find their lovely lives upended by sudden violence. Wheel the man in, wind him up and watch him go.

Perhaps it was the sense of safety that led Jake Gyllenhaal to sign up for the main part – of hotshot prosecutor and devoted husband and father Rusty Sabich, who finds himself accused of a colleague’s murder – as his first small screen leading role. He is generally braver in his film choices but he delivers the goods here in what is fundamentally a creatively underwhelming proposition.

So – to the creatively underwhelming proposition itself! For those who don’t remember the plot from the first time round, Rusty’s fellow prosecutor Carolyn Polhemus (Renate Reinsve) is hogtied and murdered in a manner that resembles the work of a man they helped put away years ago. Did they prosecute the wrong man? Nothing would delight Rusty’s work rival Tommy Molto (Peter Sarsgaard – Gyllenhaal’s real-life brother-in-law, fact fans) more. No, wait – there is one thing that could delight him more and here it comes: Rusty was having an affair with Carolyn. He becomes the prime suspect in her murder.

Rusty must prove his innocence while trying to keep his fragile marriage together. His wife, Barbara (Ruth Negga), already knew about the affair – therapy is being had – but the new revelations are frankly a bit much.

From there everything unfolds efficiently. Information and twists are expertly titrated. The enmity between Rusty and Tommy grows and becomes increasingly personal. Rusty is tormented and viewers are presented with an array of possibilities tempting enough to keep us ploughing through the eight hour-long episodes, slightly against our better judgment and awareness that we only have a limited time on this Earth and should probably get out more. The performances are uniformly good and involving but never quite enough to overcome the slick soullessness that is the hallmark of every Kelley production. You never quite care. It never quite means anything.

For those who can remember the film, there are telling differences and telling similarities. Of the former, the main example is the amount of screen time given to Barbara, a cipher in the original version (and not much more than that in the book). Where the film concentrated on Rusty’s suffering as he struggled to prove his innocence, Barbara 2.0 gets good speeches, full of anguish, to give us a better sense of the ramification of her husband’s affair on her and their family, and even her own potential love interest in the shape of charmingly attentive bartender (Sarunas J Jackson).

Carolyn, however, remains mainly visible in flashback sex scenes and lingering shots of the crime photos that show her trussed up and bloody. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose when it comes to the crunch.

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The overall effect is to make you hope that it has given Gyllenhaal the confidence to seek out the small-screen equivalents of Donnie Darko, Brokeback Mountain or Nightcrawler, that someday producers will seek out new stories to tell, and that they might even be ones in which no women are hogtied or killed. Until then, a handful of blistering wifely speeches will have to do.

Presumed Innocent is on Apple TV+ now.

Source: theguardian.com