'Inside Man' review: David Tennant and Steven Moffat team up for deliciously deviant drama

Jefferson Grieff (Stanley Tucci) in Inside Man (BBC)
Jefferson Grieff (Stanley Tucci) in Inside Man (BBC)

To commit murder, one should never get emotional. Like everything else in life, that most heinous of crimes comes down to a simple choice. Inside Man, which airs on BBC One and iPlayer from 26 September, not only explores that darkest of decisions, but manages to shape a deliciously deviant piece of drama from it in the process.

Written by Steven Moffat (Sherlock), alongside Paul McGuigan on directing duties (Victor Frankenstein), Inside Man tells a tale of murderous moral and ethical ambiguity, which begins on a tube train heading out of London. Featuring two divergent performances, which each require a subtle degree of nuance as well as a gift for gallows humour, this is a supreme piece of television.

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Featuring a charismatic turn from Stanley Tucci as Jefferson Grieff, convicted killer and ex-professor of criminology, this limited series uses David Tennant’s turn as vicar Harry Watling to build a compelling tale. One in which sexual deviancy and a single moment of misunderstanding, quickly snowball into something altogether more deadly.

Watch a trailer for Inside Man

Inside Man takes its time to establish Jefferson Grieff as a pragmatic man, who feels no remorse for his impulsive act of violence, but seeks to give back in other ways. Gifted with an ability to solve the unsolvable crimes, people come from far and wide to seek his counsel. His only pre-requisite being that each case pushes a small slice of good back into the world.

Alongside his amiable, yet no less guilty sidekick Dillon (Atkins Eastwood), Jefferson sits on death row like a latter-day Sherlock Holmes, taking pleasure in applying his formidable abilities to anything he pleases. It's a position which brings him into contact with investigative journalist Beth Davenport (Lydia West), who reaches out for an interview but soon walks away with a lot more.

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David Tennat as Harry Watling in Inside Man. (BBC)

Far away from Jefferson’s stateside jail cell is Harry Watling, who seemingly possesses an unwavering moral virtue and endless amounts of empathy for others. With his wife Mary (Lyndsey Marshall) and home-schooled teenager in situ, Harry appears to have a perfect life mapped out. Writer Steven Moffat is savvy in building up this idyllic existence, while David Tennant shapes Harry into a paragon of unshakeable faith.

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However, there are narrative seeds planted early on, which soon see all this fall to pieces — as a crucial encounter with Edgar (Mark Quartley), an overly sensitive verger in training, turns Harry’s life into a nightmare. That is when Inside Man first applies the thumb screws, as proof of a dubious predilection finds its way into the wrong hands.

Stanley Tucci and Atkins Estimond in Inside Man. (BBC)
Stanley Tucci and Atkins Estimond in Inside Man. (BBC)

To the credit of all involved, Inside Man never resorts to shock tactics to engage its audience, but instead relies on reaction shots. In the moment when their family tutor Janice (Dolly Wells) unwittingly stumbles on that game changer, this show shifts gear, doubles down on its character study elements and leaves audiences reeling.

Across the pond, Beth is growing closer to Jefferson and Dillon, as this incarcerated criminologist begins putting her journalistic instincts to work. In their scenes together Tucci is clearly having enormous fun, dancing between the moral ambiguities which his character represents. Like a lighter take on The Silence of the Lambs with less Buffalo Bill, Inside Man digs deeper into the discussions around taking a life.

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Beth (Lydia West) and Morag (Kate Dickie) in Inside Man. (BBC)

In England, as Harry and Mary find themselves discussing increasingly similar things, Steven Moffat goes darker still in his desire to dissect this taboo topic. For many this show might feel like a step too far, as it features some genuinely disturbing ideas which are given an honest appraisal in the service of entertainment. However, such things exist in this world and dramatists exist to explore them without fear of repercussions or reprisals.

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Beyond that, what this exceptional ensemble manages to do is create something truly original, which goes beyond convention and aims to make audiences ask questions. In a time when unauthorised selfies are tantamount to an assault charge, Tennant, Tucci and Moffat have used their platform to further those conversations.

Inside Man,Key Art,L-R;Harry Watling (DAVID TENNANT);Janice Fife (DOLLY WELLS);Jefferson Grieff (STANLEY TUCCI);Beth Davenport (LYDIA WEST),Hartswood,Sam Barker
Inside Man starts on the BBC from 26 September. (BBC)

What that means for audiences is simple – Inside Man has upped the ante in terms of narrative sophistication. By effortlessly mixing taboo topics with liberal amounts of gallows humour, Steven Moffat has produced an incisive piece of social commentary worth its weight in gold.

Stand outs above and beyond David Tennant and Stanley Tucci are too numerous to name, as each player excels in grounding this premise. Inside Man is essential viewing, and should features prominently in watchlists for some time to come.

Inside Man will premiere on BBC One at 9pm on 26 September. Subsequent episodes with air on Tuesday 27 September and Monday 3 October, before concluding on 4 October.