Atmospheric and haunting, Death and Nightingales is blessed with a quietly powerful leading performance from Ann Skelly, who keeps the slow Irish drama engaging.
Perhaps this is just me, but the purpose of Jamie Dornan both in the movies and on television continues to elude me. Don’t get me wrong – if a director needs someone to look good idly thrusting atop a pretty woman, he’s your man. But beyond that, he’s something of a charisma trap, although his inability to properly convey emotion is something of an attribute in Death and Nightingales, in which his true intentions are kept deliberately unclear.
Based on the 1992 book of the same name by Eugene McCabe, Death and Nightingales concerns Beth (Ann Skelly), who on her birthday flees from her Protestant stepfather Billy (Matthew Rhys) and into the open arms of the dashing Liam Ward (Dornan). Billy keeps getting drunk and trying to sleep with her, but the implication is that Liam might not have the best of intentions either. Things aren’t ideal for the ladies in 1883 Fermanagh.
Fermanagh, for what it’s worth, has a haunting, picturesque beauty to it but also an eerie primitiveness, although that might be just the stinking cows drowning in the mud. That feeling permeates the entirety of Death and Nightingales, which has a creeping, omnipresent dread, even though its difficult to pinpoint where it’s coming from. For that matter, it’s difficult to pinpoint much of anything about the show, which is slow and careful and risks being unengaging whenever it focuses on atmosphere over plot.
It isn’t unengaging, though, thanks mostly to Ann Skelly, who in the lead role has a quiet ferocity; she seems to be constantly swallowing back the urge to lose it just to maintain the facade of a pretty Irish flower. You always get the sense she’s ready to kick off, and the show itself retains some of that quality too – not much is happening, but it always feels like it’s about to.
I’m sure that’ll put some people off. Still, Allan Cubitt’s latest collaboration with Dornan is oddly mesmerising, and while Dornan himself might be better at enticing viewers than he is at maintaining them, a revelatory low-key performance from the show’s leading lady might do that job on its own.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.