Is Australian television capable of producing an international thriller and should we even try? In 2009, the answer is yes. Although propped up by money from the UK, False Witness is produced entirely by Screentime, which also produced Underbelly.
This is a sprawling, two-part, big-budget espionage thriller set across Sydney, London and Tajikistan, inspired by the 1997 theft of five Soviet built nuclear “suitcase bombs”. At the centre of this tale is Dougray Scott (Desperate Housewives), as British diplomat Ian Porter, supposedly working for a Russian arms dealer (Don Hany). Porter also has ties with MI6 via his handler Van Koors (Richard Roxburgh). But Scotland Yard, represented by Inspector Julie Hales (Rachael Blake) trying to thwart the sale of nuclear weapons, offers Porter immunity and ferries him to Sydney under its Witness Protection Scheme. Confusing? Sure, but let’s not let that get in the way of a good yarn.
Despite the convoluted set-up there are taut action scenes, energetically-directed boasting real money visible on the screen. It kicks off with Porter arrested in a British airport, a shootout between crims and cops in a gritty urban warehouse, and plenty of contemporary London cityscapes. Even Stephen Curry is a Scotland Yard suit, alongside Blake, complete with a decent cockney accent.
But it’s in Sydney when the story really takes hold. Porter has been ice-cold to his wife (Claire Forlani) since the tragic drowning of their son. Under the watchful eyes of Australian Federal Police (Jeremy Lindsay-Taylor and Jonny Pasvolsky), there is subtext aplenty amongst these four. Lindsay-Taylor is particularly outstanding here: gruff, macho, charismatic and utterly Australian.
The majority of the foreign scenes are predominantly interiors, probably filmed in Australia. The production has seemingly hired a cinematographer to grab establishing and location shots of London and Tajikistan – yet it’s entirely convincing.
Others in the cast include Tony Martin, Chris Haywood, Socratis Otto and Doris Younane.
Underbelly writer Peter Gawler, and director Peter Andrikidis, have again triumphed. Their attention to detail is impressive here, matched by strong performances from the leads. Shot for local content requirements, the first of two parts is strongest, with part two let down by an unlikely ending. But for the most part this is a terrific and intelligent thriller that maintains Screentime’s lead as king of this genre.
False Witness airs 8.30pm Sunday and Monday on UK TV and BBC HD.