The Fear Index review – a nail-biting, number-crunching, big-money mystery

Risky money making! Creepy intruders! Josh Hartnett looking terrified! This financial thriller about a tech entrepreneur is an enjoyably tense, complex watch

I do love a financial thriller. It’s such a palate-cleanser, given a television diet comprised mostly of the psychological kind. Our screens are full of people working from hidden, emotional motives that must be carefully developed and depicted, enacting revenges, delivering bespoke justice for crimes old and new that have struck at the heart of their families, bereaved them or otherwise made the protagonist’s life an inescapable misery. You are asked to engage, identify and feel along with them. You need a break, after a while.

A financial thriller, by contrast, is a rejuvenating thing, the small-screen equivalent of one of Bertie Wooster’s “liveners”. Why are all these people doing whatever it is they’re doing? Money! Why is that man dead? He had money! Or he was stopping the other people getting more money! What are they doing with all those computers? Getting money! Why do they want the money? Because they want money! All it has to do is keep these kinds of questions – and the single answer – coming until the story ends and the money ends up with the right people. Or doesn’t. Who cares? It’s just money and that’s the joy of the thing.

So, then, to a fine example of the form – The Fear Index (Sky Atlantic), a four-part adaptation of the Robert Harris 2011 bestseller of the same name. I have read the book and, in true financial thriller reading tradition, remember exactly what happens in each scene the moment after it has finished playing out on screen. I do remember there is money involved. And some computers.

This time round, though, there is also Josh Hartnett! He plays the man who has the money and the computers – hedge fund founder and money-science-computer-business-genius Dr Alexander Hoffman. He and his charismatic/showboating CEO Hugo Quarry (Arsher Ali) are about to seek a new round of funding from all the rich people who already invest in the company, plus some new ones, because you can never have enough rich people investing in your company, as I understand it. Hoffman has just invented a … an … algorithm? Artificial intelligence system? Whole computer with extra clever bits stuck on? Don’t know, but it’s a MacGuffin called VIXAL-4 and what it does is, like, crunch loads and loads and loads of data and use it to predict events like what no human ever could. ’S amazing.

Dr H almost misses the important meeting with the rich investors, however, because he has been spooked by the events of the night before. To wit: someone (not his wife, nor anyone else who knew about his interest in it) has sent him a first edition of Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Someone bypasses his state-of-the-art (there is no other kind when you are a money-science-computer-business-genius person) security system. A straggly haired intruder enters the house and knocks Big H unconscious. According to the book dealer, Hoffman ordered the book himself; the straggly haired intruder looks exactly like one of the terrified faces printed in the 1872 book. Is someone messing with Dr H’s mind or is his own mind becoming a mess?

But wait – what’s the money doing? Well, you will be glad to know that it is increasing! The VIXAL-4 MacGuffin has been up and running for a week and the investors are delighted to learn that it has made them – and excuse the technical jargon here – absolutely oodles of cash. To the behind-the-scenes protests of risk manager Marieme (Aïssa Maïga) about the hellish risk-exposure levels involved in using the AI, the bullish Quarry and the distracted Hoffman pay scant regard. But I’m sure everything will be fine.

I jest, of course. Layer upon layer of mystery, tension and complication pile up satisfyingly quickly, as whoever is infiltrating Hoffman’s life and security code begins to reveal more and more of their intervening hand. Unless, of course, everything is Hoffman’s paranoid delusion. The power of VIXAL-4 to foresee and to profit accordingly from disasters no human could have foreseen becomes increasingly unsettling. Fear of losing your mind, fear of the unknown, fear of the robots taking over our lives, fear of failure and of danger and humanity’s fearsomely predictable responses to it all entwine nicely, somewhere around the viewers’ throats.

It’s solid, satisfying stuff. And it is given a remarkable lift by Hartnett, who invests Hoffman with a palpable, credible and increasingly corrosive fearfulness from the off. It feels real. It looks as if he is truly suffering, and he is a notable number of steps up from the occasional moments of hyperventilation and darting eyes at crunch points in the plot, which is all that the leading man is usually allowed in these things. Fear not – you will enjoy.