★★★ MCMAFIA, SERIES FINALE, BBC ONE The last bite is the cruellest
McMafia has taught us to recognise one thing – you might call it the “Norton stride”. As the charismatic Alex Godman, James Norton has been advancing, confidently at screen centre, towards one challenge after another, and they have been coming (mildly put) from all sorts of unexpected quarters. He’s dealt with everything by pressing onwards, ignoring advice from all and sundry.
Quite who he was propelling ahead to meet at the end of this final episode of Hossein Amini and James Watkins’s series was left a mystery. But if Vladimir Putin himself had slipped into shot, smiling lopsidedly, arm out in cheery handshake, would it have been a surprise? In the course of a single, swift boardroom presentation, Alex seemed to have earned the trust of some of the most suspicious people on the planet, the oligarchic courtiers who surround the plutocratic Kremlin throne. Not to mention, rid himself – and how! – of his erstwhile arch-enemy Vadim, who by the end, I suspect, was attracting rather more viewer sympathy than his upstart nemesis.
The slope may have been slippery, but the nonchalance with which Alex strolled down it was too easy
How on earth did it come to this? Alex had begun proceedings as the apple of the New Russian eye, a bright new hope of Londongrad, determinedly pursuing his legitimate career in finance, disdaining any opportunities connected to his family’s (more talked of than witnessed) murky past, complete with girlfriend who was there, not least, to epitomise ethical capitalism. Alas, poor Rebecca (Juliet Rylance), how cruelly were your expectations abused… It took her to episode seven, and the not-small matter of a bullet to the stomach, to deliver a most bruising verdict: “You pretend to be civilised, but you’re not. You’ve got manners and do some of the right things, but that’s not who you are.”
Any paternal rebuke that followed that one could only sound lugubrious rather than accusatory. And it wasn’t as if anyone in the Godman family had any right to cast stones, it having been Uncle Boris who first set the whole shooting match going. “Your uncle would be so proud of you,” Vadim said in valedictory send-off to Alex, only by then it wasn’t intended as a compliment. But a toast to dear old Boris all the same: it just wasn’t quite the same – the chutzpah had somehow gone missing – after he was so prematurely but appropriately despatched with that caviar knife. (Consolation for David Dencik? If the role of Lenin ever comes up again, he’d be a shoo-in.)
But, in the end, there was only one thing at stake: was Alex’s lightning conversion from hero to anti-hero credible? For all the justifications offered – the need to protect his family, that improbably acquired loyalty to Semyon, even his chancy engagements with power and its sheer adrenalin rush – it didn’t convince. We went from his opening assertion, “I’m a banker not a gangster”, through his being told “You’re not a drug-dealer”, to a closing position that had him improbably seeking justification along the lines of “I’m just a broker..." The slope may have been slippery, but the nonchalance with which Alex strolled down it was too easy. Norton has proved elsewhere just how low he can go when character calls, but his besuited charm here didn’t convey the depths.Director James Watkins held a close-up on Norton’s face as he performed the act that defined this last episode, and the register of emotions we saw crossing it simply didn’t stretch Alex into sufficient complexity. All those warnings that, if he went on down that path, he would have to give up everything had gone unheeded, and now he appeared to have made (surely temporarily) top dog, in a very nasty kennel. And what were we supposed to care about in such gangster vindication, apart from the casualties he had left behind: that in gaining the world, he had lost himself? All the while, we couldn’t help but feel something for Vadim, his past brutalities notwithstanding: cutting between Natasha’s funeral and Alex delivering his boardroom bullshit said it all.
The mindset that Alex morphed into – his rediscovery of his Russian genepool, if you like – could hardly have been more depressing. It was evident in Vadim (pictured above), and that trustless unease in his present-tense world, so stark a contrast to his adoration of his daughter – the new generation, promising everything! – and his absolute love for his mother, the older one that lived through hardship but somehow knew itself. Look to Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s new film Loveless for another depiction of how a society that has lost track of its origins impacts fatally on the next generation: it was spooky that, almost the last we saw of Alex, he was revisiting the old family flat, trying to go right back to the beginning. While on the subject of generational continuity, two of the strongest scenes here, without any doubt, were those in which a man discovered, out of the blue, that he had fathered a child whom he would never see.If that was the dark heart of McMafia, there was certainly plenty of colour in its globetrotting diversions, though attendant visual attractions were not always borne out by narrative sense. The whole strand in Israel seemed far-fetched, with David Strathairn as Kleiman more genial academic than criminal mastermind, the unexplored human trafficking angle (just what kept Lyudmila there?), and various curious hangers-on (Tanya, the improbable nightclub vamp-cum-jailer). Mumbai wasn’t much better, though computer-hacking the docks certainly made for knife-edge tension (useful lesson to would-be gangsters: select your hacker well in advance?).
That left the London-Moscow axis, and a script that, the more it probed character, the more it sometimes felt ropey, with a cast that did its best to emote through the more obvious longueurs. Some of the Russian playing was brilliant, some of it perfunctory, and even Alexey Serebryakov (pictured above) fell into the latter category sometimes when he went into English. (Some nice familial curiosities in the Russian casting: Elena Lyadova, Serebryakov’s wife in Zvyaginstev’s tempestuous film Leviathan, was the icy-cool FSB superior spook, Iryana, while Maria Shukshina, Alex’s mother, played opposite number to her own mother, Lydia Fedoseeva-Shukshina as Vadim’s mother). Loose, and undeveloped ends abounded: Rebecca and the improbable Antonio and that “are-they, aren’t-they?” scenario, and cameo sister Katya, with her even more underused boyfriend, to suggest just two. Alongside a fair amount that gripped, McMafia had too much ballast that didn’t come together sufficiently to go beyond that.