If you are in the mood for a serious dose of the spooks – horror not spies – that is reticent, different, yet strangely familiar, there’s a doozy starting on Monday.
Your briefing before you watch is this: A person or people with unresolved issues land on a remote island where the isolated residents have a distinct air of “otherness.” They have their own strange ways that suggest a sinister cult or adherence to ancient beliefs. This is not a unique premise, but here it is done with a heft that owes more to immersive theatre and fable than TV or movie tradition.
The Third Day (Monday, HBO 9 p.m.), a British Sky/HBO production, is featured at the current TIFF with two episodes, and you can see why. It is emphatically and at times gloriously visual while simultaneously being anchored in characters whose lives, motivations and backstories take some time to emerge. Mind you, two episodes only give a small taste.
This series is something of a TV experiment because while it is, on paper, a seven-part mini-series, it has a unique structure. It has three episodes focusing on one character on this remote island and another three featuring a different character in the same location. In between the two sets, there is in a one-off episode, filmed live, that informs both sets of episodes.
As for the spooky element, it’s extremely well done and gripping. Jude Law plays Sam, a man we find alone in a remote part of England, clearly dealing with some crisis in his past. From phone calls he makes, he also has some troubles playing out right now. He witnesses a stunning, perverse act in the woods involving a teenage girl and then takes her to her home in the nearby island of Osea. The island exists as an island when the tides shift and the causeway to there is covered by sea water.
Once there, he senses strangeness. The locals are preparing for a coming festival, which looks pagan. None of this is played for unsubtle, looming horror. It’s just an air of slightly disorienting mystery. Sam is first truly startled when the wife of the owner of the local pub, Mrs. Martin (Emily Watson), tells him she knows who he is and the pain he’s suffered. This isn’t necessarily ominous. She might have seen him on TV. But then she says, “Most people are afraid of pain. They don’t know how warm it can be.” You know then that some sort of horror, perhaps bleak and unknowable, is looming.
The next three episodes, after the intermission-episode, are set months later and feature a woman named Helen (Naomie Harris), who arrives on the island with her two daughters. They seem to be there by happenstance, Helen having failed to organize a suitable birthday getaway break. They, too, notice the oddness of the behaviour and the disconcerting rituals. Helen becomes a tad paranoid but, like Sam, she might well have hidden, internal emotional struggles that influence her perception.
The Third Day might easily be connected to the classic movie The Wicker Man, but that’s a surface connection. Here, in a series created by Felix Barrett and Dennis Kelly, the sinister is in the psyche of the characters who arrive and confront people and events in Osea. It’s a different type of unsettling story. It is often mesmerizing to look upon, this remote arena of land, sea and abnormality.
Two things to note – co-creator Barrett is known for his ground-breaking immersive theatre, in Britain, which takes the audience inside what reviews call, “epic storytelling inside sensory theatrical worlds.” This mini-series has, apparently, been years in development.
Second, and if you watch you really must know this, Osea is a real place and some of the smouldering sub-story mentioned in the drama is anchored in fact. In 1903 one Frederick Charrington, who had made his fortune in brewing beer, purchased Osea and turned it into a recovery place and work camp for alcoholics, drug addicts and others. The residents lived free if they worked the land and sea to overcome their demons. Charrington had, one day, out of the blue, become a zealot who raged against drinking, brothels, sex-work and other vices, as he saw it. Such was his hatred for sex-work that at one point the police thought he might be Jack the Ripper.
There are so many strange layers to The Third Day.
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