Thriller’s cop driven by torment, loss

“Bloodlands,” starring James Nesbitt, is now streaming via Acorn TV after it was a ratings hit abroad on the BBC. PHOTO COURTESY OF ACORN TV

By Karen Butler

An excellent story, intriguing character and the chance to film in Northern Ireland made “Bloodlands” an irresistible project for County Antrim native James Nesbitt.

“I wanted Northern Ireland to be seen in this new context where people can see a vibrant, new, emerging Belfast that is sophisticated and diverse and I wanted the beauty of Strangford Lough and the Mountains of Mourne to be there,” the 56-year-old actor told the Irish Echo in a recent Zoom interview.

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“But, also, I just thought it was a great thriller and I loved the character -- the ambiguity, the vulnerability, the strength, the torment, the loss, the love a father has for his daughter, to which he is prepared to do almost anything to protect her. It ticked every sort of box for me.”

The four-part mystery was written by Chris Brandon, directed by Pete Travis and produced by Jed Mercurio.

It follows Nesbitt’s character, Deputy Chief Inspector Tom Brannick, a veteran police detective and the single father of an adult daughter, as he investigates the present-day kidnapping of an ex-IRA man, which may be linked to the disappearances of several people, including Brannick’s wife, around the time of the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Season 1 of “Bloodlands” is now streaming in North America via Acorn TV after it was a ratings hit abroad on the BBC. The series co-stars Lorcan Cranitch, Lisa Dwan, Ian McElhinney, Charlene McKenna, Lola Petticrew, Michael Smiley and Chris Walley. It was recently renewed for a second season.

“I love filming in Northern Ireland and I love getting my creative teeth into things shot there and [it’s] also something that looked at the Troubles. A drama which explores and examines the balance between the importance of protecting peace, but also justice for past crimes, was quite important to me,” said Nesbitt.

In real life, the star of “Bloody Sunday” and “Five Minutes of Heaven” works with the WAVE Trauma Centre, which supports people impacted by the violence in Northern Ireland during the mid to late 20th century.

“Bloodlands” may be a piece of fiction, but it rings true emotionally and historically.

“As much as I want to educate people about Northern Ireland and the importance of dealing with legacy as we continue to try and emerge -- also particularly during this year [with the coronavirus pandemic] -- I want to try to entertain people. I felt that this was brutal at times, but, my God, what a privilege,” he said of the opportunity to dive into such rich material.

Tom has seen and been through a lot during his decades on the job and those experiences are clearly taking their toll on him by the time “Bloodlands” viewers meet him.

"He's held on to so much for such a long period," Nesbitt said, describing the flawed and complicated cop as someone "who has just carried the weight of the Troubles for 30 years, as an awful lot of people did, on both sides.”

Tom’s relationships with the women in his life are all fascinating, but different.

His daughter, Izzy (Petticrew,) and his partner, Niamh (McKenna,) were still kids when the Troubles ended, while Tom's romantic interest, Tori, is old enough to remember losing someone she loved.

People in Izzy's age group "are the first generation, maybe in Irish history, that have been completely born into peace," Nesbitt pointed out. "That, I think, is a very good template of how important the dynamics between Tom and his daughter and young people are."

Tori (Dwan,) who is in her 40s, grew up during the unrest.

“Working with Lisa was really interesting,” Nesbitt said. “She is from the South of Ireland and she is very known for her Beckett roles, but she brought such an incredible truth and honesty to that role of someone whose whole life has been impacted by the Troubles through one way or another and is looking for answers and looking for reasons and maybe even looking for revenge."

Niamh, on the other hand, is a straight-arrow police officer in her 30s.

“She’s almost the audience’s eyes, in a way,” Nesbitt said, referring to how many of the other characters in the show seem to have something to hide, while Niamh appears dedicated to unearthing the truth.

“As the show develops, you just see how the conflict in Northern Ireland and all those secrets and lies begin to wrap themselves around everyone. Navigating all of that was one of the most impressive things our writer did and our director, as well,” Nesbitt said.

Late in the series, Nesbitt reunites with his “Waking Ned Devine” leading lady Susan Lynch, who is called in to interrogate a high-profile suspect at the center of the “Bloodlands” case.

“She is amazing. She’s just wonderful. I worked with her on ‘Monroe,’ as well. She had been my ex-wife,” Nesbitt said. “She brings incredible gravitas and weight when she comes into [‘Bloodlands.]”

While Nesbitt is a skillful, likable actor who has proven he can carry off any type of role, the star of “Cold Feet,” “Ballykissangel,” “Murphy’s Law,” “Jekyll,” “The Hobbit” trilogy and “The Missing,” admitted he he is most drawn to films and TV shows that tackle important political and historical issues.

“I want these questions to be asked and the way I can ask these questions -- and maybe answer them -- is through the medium of my very fortunate position to be a privileged and lucky actor. Long may it continue,” he said. “But I wouldn’t mind doing a comedy now and again.”