The best drama about domestic violence against women I’ve ever seen was Lucy Gannon’s Trip Trap in 1996. It starred Kevin Whately, normally seen as the soft and bumbling Lewis but cast brilliantly against type as the abusive husband, and Stella Gonet as his literally and metaphorically broken wife. By “best”, of course, I mean the most harrowing, the most relentlessly accurate and granular in its detail of the brutalisation such a relationship involves, the most effective at evoking the extent of the fear suffusing the victim’s world. A quarter of a century on, it’s still an inescapable touchstone when I brace myself for another fictional foray into this particular horror.
And the forays are numerous. Not as numerous as those that centre on the murder of a woman, but domestic (or intimate partner) violence (or spousal abuse, or battered wives – the terms change but they are always needed) remains a fertile field for investigation. Or exploitation, depending on the quality and intelligence of the product.
Angela Black, ITV’s new six-part drama about the cankered truth lying beneath the idyllic surface of a marriage, lies somewhere between the two extremes. The tale of Angela (Joanne Froggatt) suffering in silence at the hands of her husband Olivier (Michiel Huisman) is compassionate, not voyeuristic (the violence takes place almost entirely off screen, a bloodied tooth on the hallway floor telling us all we need to know) nor in search of cheap thrills at her expense or, indeed, the expense of real-life survivors and victims.
It benefits from a tremendous performance from Froggatt, who gives us a woman utterly drained yet jumping with nerves, hypervigilant yet weighed down by the burden of misery and dread she carries. She adds much needed emotional heft, especially once the thriller element is introduced, and nuance to a workaday script (“I can be better. I want to be better … We have so much that is worth fighting for”) that slips into outright unconvincing when it comes to most of Olivier’s lines. For some reason, a strikingly high proportion of them finish with tag questions (“Beautiful things can be flawed, can’t they?”) and make him sound deeply unnatural. Elsewhere, friends and neighbours make the standard inquiries about her bruised face and give her the traditional troubled look when she explains. Her son opened a door into her, she says, seemingly unaware that any variant on the “I walked into a door” excuse is unlikely to allay anyone’s concerns.
Everything is a little more on the nose than it might ideally be. Olivier’s control issues are first signalled by his rubbing at the ring left by a drink set down without a coaster by a guest at a dinner party. Angela volunteers at a dog shelter, looking after caged, unhappy creatures. One is a muzzled male her supervisor warns her not to trust but she unmuzzles it anyway and it bites her. After a thwarted second attempt to flee, when her child is worried about having nightmares she assures him, “You’ll wake up and it’ll all be over. And I’ll always be just down the hall.”
The thriller element comprises the revelation by a decidedly shady private investigator, Ed Harrison (Samuel Adewunmi), of even more shocking truths about her husband. Olivier has hired him to dig up dirt on Angela so that when he files for divorce, as he secretly plans, he will get full custody of their children. But Harrison has realised his client is an abuser and chooses to warn Angela instead. One set-piece later – Angela frantically searching Olivier’s phone in the sitting room before he returns from pouring the wine in their lavishly appointed kitchen – his bona fides are proved. This makes it all the more troubling when he turns up again to tell Angela that matters have escalated and Olivier is now planning a much worse fate for her.
More than ever at this point, it is Froggatt’s performance that stops the story drifting into absurdity or becoming a trivialising, exploitative endeavour. This, I suppose, is good enough. I hope it remains so for the rest of the run. Five hours of tightrope-walking is a big undertaking and although the will to succeed is undoubtedly there, we have seen promising starts descend into simple revenge thrillers or bog-standard ITV drama pits before. Fingers crossed.