Thursday, 22 September 2011

Review: THE FADES, 1.1

Thursday, 22 September 2011
written by Jack Thorne; directed by Farren Blackburn
starring Iain De Caestecker, Johnny Harris, David Kaluuya, Natalie Dormer & Tom Ellis

Having found huge success with Being Human (which even resulted in a lucrative US remake this year), and perhaps half-inspired by the grittier success of E4's urban superhero drama Misfits, The Fades marks BBC3's next foray into the subgenre of the youth-skewed horror-fantasy, co-produced with BBC America.

Created by Jack Thorne (Skins, This Is England '86), The Fades uses the familiar hero's journey as a backbone, focusing on social pariah Paul (Iain de Caestecker), a 17-year-old bed-wetter who's been having disturbing apocalyptic nightmares of an ash-covered wasteland where a geyser spews a strange, dazzling energy. One day, while snooping around a derelict shopping centre with his geeky best-friend Mac (Psychoville's Daniel Kaluuya), Paul encounters a delirious man called Neil (Johnny Harris), whom he witnesses being attacked by a naked, skinny creature in a dark corridor. Henceforth, Paul is drawn into a strange underworld when Neil recognizes the boy's ability to see ghosts (colloquially known as "Fades").

When you get down to it, there's not actually much here that hasn't been done many times before, in various forms. It's a fairly standard idea to have a young hero with a supernatural gift, who's recruited by a mysterious people fighting a clandestine war against Evil. Remember ITV1's appalling Demons? But what it lacks in originality it just about makes up for in style. Thorne's background is with realistic teen dramas, and The Fades brings some of This Is England '86's production aesthetic to his story. The nighttime world is stained by amber street lamps, and there's a fun weirdness to everything. Even the local newsagent was born a thalidomide baby, so has undeveloped short arms.

What let The Fades down was a growing feeling that, while agreeably mysterious for awhile, you soon found yourself suspicious the script's trying to conceal the fact it's just a relatively straightforward teenage Sixth Sense with some Clive Barker-esque visuals. The first episode is focused on explaining the show's big premise, but it did so in a rather confusing manner at times. This much we do know: The Fades are ghosts who haven't crossed over to the afterlife, who turn to dust when they're walked through by organic matter, so tend to haunt places with few humans (like rooftops or abandoned buildings). There's the suggestion that both planes of existence are going to converge, which will be bad news for the living, but not everything's very clear at the moment. We know there are humans with special powers who aim to stop this apocalypse from happening, like Neil's friend Anna (This Life's Daniela Nardini), a vicar who can heal people with glowing palms. One of the best scenes involved Anna extracting poison from Neil's infected eye, with the venom seemingly being transformed into a moth that crawled out of Anna's mouth after the procedure. There were actually quite a few sequences that had some visual flair and wit to them, which helped keep interest levels above average. In particular the fantastic opening titles (in many ways more exciting than the show itself), the creepy abandoned shopping centre, and a final Harry Potter-esque sequence where various lonesome spirits were found wandering in a forest looking for a place to "ascend".

It's perhaps too early to really know what The Fades is all about, but there was enough goodness here to draw me back for more. Iain de Caestecker is good in the lead as Paul, despite his character being very clich├ęd (the outsider with a dead father who just wants to be rid of a supernatural gift, who meets with a psychiatrist every week to talk about his mental state); Kaluuya was far better than he was allowed to be in Psychoville, although I hate the trope that all geeks can't resist name-checking movies every minute; Harris gave the standout performance as Neil, being such a compelling actor who attacks every script with gusto; and I enjoyed Sophie Wu's subtle performances as idiosyncratic schoolgirl Jay, Paul's love-interest. Less interesting was history teacher Mark (Miranda's Tom Ellis), whose estranged wife Sarah (The Tudors' Natalie Dormer) is missing presumed dead—whom we know was helping Neil track Fades before she was killed in action. Did Mark know his wife could see the dead? Was Sarah having apocalyptic dreams like Paul while living with Mark? Hopefully we'll get some clarity soon, as this was one area I don't think the first episode did a particularly good job explaining.

Still, the show's aesthetic was rich and the premise is something I'm hoping will go down interesting and unforeseen avenues, even if there's little that feels unique. I have a feeling The Fades will take a few episodes to come together, and it'll either be a style-over-substance wasted opportunity, or a compelling supernatural drama that breathes new life into hoary ideas. As of right now, I thought it was good and had some promising elements, but I wasn't completely won over because of some confused elements and the occasionally sluggish pace.

Asides

  • The Fades shares some similarities with Sky Living's recent supernatural drama Bedlam. Skins actress Lily Loveless, playing Paul's twin sister Anna, even appeared on that show.
  • If you're not already aware, actress Natalie Dormer recently signed on for season 2 of HBO's Game Of Thrones, playing Margaery Tyrell.
21 September 2011 / BBC Three