Martin Carr reviews season one of M. Night Shyamalan’s Servant…
We have certain expectations from M. Night Shyamalan when it comes to feature films or television. There should be a guaranteed twist, an ambiguous psychological segue as well as some topical food for thought. He is a writer director with very specific requirements who consistently provides solid stories and unique performances which often address contemporary concerns. There is a measured and calculating feel to the best examples and in person Shyamalan proves disarming, erudite and above all passionate about storytelling.
Following on from his involvement with Wayward Pines which ran successfully for two seasons, Shyamalan teams up with Apple and writer Tony Basgallop to bring us Servant. A show which from the outset drip feeds premise through character interaction and subtle exposition rather than straightforward narrative. From a dramatic perspective Servant is littered with dozens of minor twists which intentionally layer character motivation with uncertainty whilst drawing audiences in.
Soundtrack and staging combine with precise performance to give this the feel of an intimate stage play. Words are never wasted, scenes essential and dialogue used with the precision of a surgical blade. From the opening frame of episode one emotions are already running high barely kept in check by husband and wife Dorothy and Sean Turner. Ambrose and Kebbell use quiet moments to establish character, while Shyamalan employs his camera to observe rather than engage, teasing out abnormalities amongst the mundane.
By employing close ups throughout both in observing character and their interactions Shyamalan intentionally crosses personal boundaries. We are intruding on tragedy, overstaying our welcome during silences and enduring the claustrophobia which is part of this relationship. When the Servant does arrive circumstances take a more abstract turn, as she brings an unbearable stillness combined with an undercurrent of unwavering conviction. That ethereal presence plays into individual scenes as Nell Tiger Free goes toe to toe with both Toby Kebbell and Lauren Ambrose more than matching them on dramatic terms. Often having much less to work with she imbues Leanne with an eerie calm allowing others to deflect emotions on to her.
Sean represents the voice of reason as things begin to spiral, divisions become divides and silences become more protracted. In comparison Dorothy is defined by mania using work to stem off complete disintegration. Leanne exists between the cracks of this crumbling relationship providing an abstract balance which is greeted with both suspicion and relief. However beyond the slow burn theatrics, singular location and barely visible outside world, Servant hides one more ace up its sleeve.
Emerging from beneath the shadow of that franchise and cloaked in an American accent with hints of a young James Spader, Rupert Grint breathes life into Julian. An intrinsic member of this dysfunctional family who is hard drinking, suspiciously shady and comes in like an overly protective alpha male. He remains the revelation throughout as any vestiges of Ronald Weasley are systematically eradicated. Julian is a womanising smoker with an overinflated sense of self, delusions of grandeur and an overwhelming sense of entitlement borne of money. This remains the most inspired piece of casting here and with each passing moment Grint visibly buries that legacy a little deeper. Yet that is not the only thing which happens as slowly but surely a character actor emerges with presence, power and nuance. Neither majorly mainstream nor intentionally an indie wannabe Servant advertises to the world that there may yet be a post Potter acting force worth reckoning with. Individually inspired within dramatic scenes and imbued with subconscious comic timing this series may signal a career change which sees him eclipse his contemporaries.
On the strength of these opening four episodes Apple’s decision to greenlight a second season is well founded, as Servant touches on universal themes, addresses contemporary concerns and packs a series of power house performances under one roof. In an era of high concept, high cost story telling Shyamalan remains refreshingly focused without ignoring the bottom line.