TV review: Death and Nightingales, BBC Two (3 stars)

TV review: Death and Nightingales, BBC Two

Ann Skelly and Jamie Dornan / credit: Teddy Cavendish

Atmosphere and acting maintain interest in this austere adaptation of a moody 1990s Irish novel

You'll need the brightness control button close to hand for much of the opening episode of Death and Nightingales as the glom of a 19th-century rural Irish setting is laid on thick. This three-part adaptation of Eugene McCabe's 1992 novel eventually lightens up its visual palette, but never rises above the grim while its familial murder plot thickens.

At its centre is Beth (Ann Skelly), a country woman who celebrates her 23rd birthday (an inexplicable alteration here as she becomes 25 in the book) by turning down gig tickets in order to make butter and kill a pig. Earlier we see her rescue a fallen cow by puncturing its flesh to let out a foul wind. This is about as action-packed as episode one gets until Ann and her would-be suitor, the mysterious Liam (Jamie Dornan, an actor who seemingly never does anything other than mysterious), consider homicidal vengeance upon Billy (Matthew Rhys). This is the man who reluctantly raised Ann after discovering she may not be his flesh and blood and is prone to grubbily mistreating her in later life.

A poisoning is afoot in the very first scene with distracting point-of-view shots aiming to drag us straight into the story. But the concentration levels are not easy to maintain, especially when the soundtrack is an endless murmur then bellow of Celtic strings, pipes and percussion.

Dornan reunites with writer Allan Cubitt after their work together on The Fall, an excellent (and yes, constantly brooding) drama series about a serial killer targeting vulnerable women which shares a geography with Death and Nightingales, but little else. Women are certainly given a rough ride in both shows, with abusive farmhands and strict stepfathers attempting to keep the female characters downtrodden, but it's time up on all that even if it has to be achieved through violent means.

Death and Nightingales is a drama with plenty merit through its performances and atmosphere which careers between moody and maudlin, but a lightweight story isn't enough to keep it driving forward with compelling momentum.

Episodes watched: 1 & 2 of 3

Death and Nightingales starts on BBC Two, Wednesday 28 November, 9pm.