As anyone who has seen James Nesbitt’s work knows, he is a force to be reckoned with. In Jekyll, Cold Feet and Murphy’s Law he dominated the screen. It isn’t just because of his thick Irish accent, it is the absolute conviction he brings to his characters.
So it is with Seargant Mike Swift, a soldier on the ground in Iraq during the 2003 invasion of Basra.
American television has visited the subject of the war in dramas such as Steven Bochco’s Over There and David Simon / Ed Burns’ Generation Kill.
Now the BBC takes aim at its country’s social and political conscience with Occupation written by Peter Bowker (Blackpool, Wuthering Heights), to air as two 90 minute dramas. Significantly, it is strategic about the time periods depicted in the screenplay. Instead of dwelling on engagement, it chooses to dramatise how the war impacts on its central characters.
Fittingly, it opens with three friends, Swift (Nesbitt), Corporal Danny Peterson (Stephen Graham) and Corporal Lee Hibbs (Warren Brown) in combat on the streets of Basra.
When the men face a raid on an apartment sheltering the enemy, their unit is blown apart by a grenade. Here, Swift rescues a young girl and carries her in his arms to a local hospital where he meets Dr. Aliya Nabil (Lubna Azabal). She soon impresses upon Swift how dire their medical facilities are.
Filmed in Morocco, the early scenes make for a convincing state of terror. The local people are victims of a senseless war. The soldiers are depicted as gallant, true believers. Ultimately, nobody wins here.
Occupation then shifts its drama back to Manchester, where several months later Swift has returned with the girl and Dr. Nabil. At a Press Conference he is hailed as hero, having brought the young Iraqi girl home to the UK for expert surgery.
But the experience stays with him. More to the point, a growing affection for Dr. Nabil stays with him. While his friends and family never grasp how the war has impacted on his ability to re-adjust, he draws closer to Dr. Nabil, who must return to her country.
Across its episodes, Occupation will return each of its central characters to Iraq -but each for different reasons: love, money and to rebuild. Along the way it comments upon wasted billions, lost lives, corporate greed, idealism, folly and hope.
Performances are first-rate. The enigmatic Nesbitt is dynamic as the determined and moral Swift, Azabal makes for an alluring, exotic woman who makes him question his life.
The action scenes are full of fury, imploding in an unforgiving setting. Produced by Kudos (Life on Mars, Spooks, Hustle), Occupation will also become at least the third drama on our television screens at the moment set in Africa / Middle East (The #1 Ladies Detective Agency and Taking the Flak). While our viewing is all the more better for their opening up a corner of the world, Occupation is the most formidable of all three.
Occupation premieres 8:30pm Wednesday January 27 on UKTV and concludes on February 3rd.