The Secrets She Keeps review – yummy mummy thriller is a guilty, predictable pleasure

Lucy Mangan
·4-min read

My sister is one of those poor creatures who cannot watch much telly. She has a quick, roving mind that cannot help but anticipate, compute and solve any plot within moments of it being set up. She walked out of The Sixth Sense the moment she realised Bruce Willis wasn’t going to take his coat off. Gone Girl took a little longer, but she was still back home before the washing machine had finished its first cycle.

Me? My brain is pudding. I enjoyed every minute of The Sixth Sense. Catch me on a bad day and you could probably surprise me with it all over again. I have seen and read Gone Girl, like Theseus in the labyrinth minus Ariadne’s ball of string. The narrative threads I have lost are outnumbered only by those I have failed to pick up in the first place.

And I have always felt this is the better way to be. My sister is constantly frustrated and annoyed (albeit home early enough to get ahead on chores) while my life is a constant round of surprises and delights. Who would have thought it was him from the first act, with the thing, because of the other thing and his connection with her and the other one? Not me! Plomp me in front of a storytelling screen of any description and I am as a tiny baby laid beneath the wagging branches of a blossoming tree, gasping anew at all the wonders of the world.

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Every now and again, though, I get a small insight into what life would be like as one of the elite, vouchsafed the gift of intelligence, calculation and predictive algorithm-ism. Such a moment arrived with the advent of The Secrets She Keeps (BBC One), the six-part Australian psychological thriller created by Michael Rowbotham and adapted from his 2017 novel.

Beautiful mummy blogger/Instagram influencer Meghan (Jessica de Gouw), permanently clad in light cashmere layers, is married to TV presenter Jack and is glowingly pregnant with her third child. However, her life is not as perfect as the curated online persona would have you believe. She is receiving messages from a very unpleasant troll (“Die, bitch, die” flashes the message over pictures of a bleeding baby doll), the family has money troubles, plus Jack (Michael Dorman) has not touched her under the athleisurewear since she announced that she was up the duff. He never wanted a third child.

Over in the uncurated, uncashmered corner we have Agatha (Laura Carmichael), a lonely supermarket worker who is as pregnant as Meghan, but with far less glow. She follows Meghan’s online life and gazes enviously and – could it be? – speculatively when Meghan and her brood come in for their weekly shop.

I am sure already you have the gist, the lay of the land, the blueprint for the machinery about to crank into gear, an intimation of the likely tensions, revelations and outcomes. This is before Simon, the handsome friend of Jack and godfather to one of the children, pitches up, or Agatha’s ex-boyfriend consoles her over the previous loss of their baby at 32 weeks, or it emerges that the story she gives about the conception of this baby differs according to whom she is telling it.

But sometimes the predictability is half the fun – I see that now. Take what you have learned from The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, through the aforementioned Gone Girl, put more recent memories of The Victim (that one with Kelly Macdonald), The Replacement (that one with Morven Christie and Vicky McClure) in order, stir in scraps from any story you have seen or read with a lost baby at its heart and you are away. Half your work is done and you are free to kick back and enjoy the non-plot elements, which range from Meghan’s homewares to the two fine central performances – with Carmichael’s Agatha a particular joy (if that is the word for one so expertly pitched between annoying and pitiable, eliciting sympathy and horror by turns).

It is also another female-centred drama to add to the growing contemporary pile. Yes, it is a pile in which motherhood (the “it’s sent her round the twist!” version) features prominently, but let’s be charitable and call that labour pains, as commissioners and executives struggle with the new idea that you can tell stories about women without scaring off a male audience. Let’s hold their hands and rub their backs for a bit longer. Keep pushing, guys, keep pushing. You will get there in the end. You have to.