Starring Jodie Comer, Natasha Little, Richard Rankin, Tim Hobson, Valene Kane, Peter MacDonald and Stuart Graham.
After thirteen years held captive by her kidnapper, Ivy Moxam escapes. Piecing back together the version of family life that existed before is no easy task.
A lot was riding on BBC Three’s new five-part drama Thirteen when it was announced earlier this year. In a turbulent time for the channel, where a move from terrestrial television to an all-online streaming platform alongside a disastrously received re-brand project, a compelling new drama aimed at BBC Three’s monopolised young adult audience had a lot of hopes pinned on it to regenerate the network and usher it into the digital age far more gracefully than it had done thus far.
The teasers and previews for Thirteen looked promising. Reminiscent of sinister real-life cases of child abduction, the tone of the drama inspires remembrances of other famous British girls who have been abducted over the years: Madeleine McCann, Milly Dowler, et cetera. The difference with Thirteen is that our protagonist, a twenty-six year old Ivy Moxam (Jodie Comer) manages to escape her captor Leonard (Peter MacDonald) after thirteen years of being held in a residential house in the Bristolian suburbs. As Ivy is released back to her family – now-divorced parents and a little sister who is now engaged to be married – she struggles to readjust to the outside world, one that she left when she was a little girl.
Hands down, the most compelling thing about Thirteen is most definitely the stunningly haunting performance of Jodie Comer as Ivy Moxam, For those of us who have seen Comer in Doctor Foster and My Mad Fat Diary, we will be used to the actress playing the bubbly, flirty and pretty supporting cast member. In Thirteen, Comer’s character could not be more different than her previous roles. She depicts Ivy as fragile and damaged, but somehow still manages to portray a sinister level of secrecy that begins to unravel as more and more of Ivy’s story is known. Comer’s talent is strongest in her volatility: the audience cannot predict how she is going to behave or react to situations. We are left on the edge of our seat wondering how Ivy truly feels about her captor, and when Leonard abducts a second girl after Ivy’s escape, whether she truly does want to assist the investigation or has developed an emotional attachment to him. Ivy’s personality is characterised by a wistfulness and maturity coupled with a childlike sincerity which is both gripping and slightly unnerving. In a cast which was otherwise fairly mediocre – with a puppy dog ex boyfriend (Tim Hobson) and wooden parents (Natasha Little and Stuart Graham) – Jodie Comer is the shining star and the redeeming quality amongst this ensemble.
The plot progression of this five-part mini-series is equally as gripping as Comer’s performance, although I have to say I feel somewhat misled by the advertising of this show. BBC Three portrayed Thirteen as a dark and gruesome thriller with twists and turns abound. What I watched was certainly full of unexpected turns and cliff-hangers, but at the same time it felt a bit, well, tame. I think BBC Three’s reluctance to go full throttle with gory details of Ivy’s time in captivity (rape, murder, torture: the whole hog) was down to its desire to attract a YA audience which might have been turned off by a drama which was more of a Wire in the Blood or Silent Witness than what Thirteen actually is. Jodie Comer’s success as Chloe in light-hearted teen comedy My Mad Fat Diary may have informed her casting as Ivy, and BBC Three is careful to toe the line between thriller and drama. The toning down of violence and horror in Thirteen does what it is designed to do: it keeps a younger, teen audience engaged. But for older viewers who might have been attracted to the compelling nature of an abduction story, it was just a little bit too safe. In some ways Thirteen felt unfinished, as though it needed another two episodes to fully explore every strand of the plot that it set out so carefully in the first two hours. Threads of sub-plots which are fairly compelling in the earlier half of the drama, like the on-again off-again romance of police detectives Lisa Merchant and Elliott Carne (Valene Kane and Richard Rankin), are let to fall by the wayside in favour of a dramatic but ultimately uninspired climactic moment. In fact, the entire final act of the plot had an overwhelming feeling of being completely rushed and attention to detail totally scrapped. So much was crammed in to the last ten minutes of episode five that the big finale – Ivy’s redemptive moments – are almost missed amid a jumble of other plotholes being swiftly filled. Up to that point, despite the tweenish style and underwhelming casting of Thirteen, I had been invested in the story and characters. But such a habberdash ending turned me off and left me feeling cheated.
Despite all of this, there are some things that Thirteen, as the flagship show for BBC Three’s transition to streaming, did extremely well. Casting Jodie Comer in a role totally unlike anything we have seen her play before was a stroke of genius, and she hooked young and old audiences alike. BBC Three also ran a very cool social media campaign alongside the show, wherein a fictional journalist released additional clues through a Twitter profile and blog, inviting fans to help solve the mystery of Leonard’s whereabouts. Stylistically, Thirteen is tense and overflowing with dramatic suspense, but I think BBC Three may have sacrificed some of the story’s integrity in order to appeal to a broader audience, and this was a detriment to the quality of the show. Ultimately, Jodie Comer was the saving grace in an otherwise mismatched effort.