Kelly Macdonald tells of ‘darkest’ role in new legal thriller

Kelly Macdonald (centre, with Pooky Quesnel and John Hannah) plays a mother out to avenge her murdered son in new thriller The Victim. Photograph: Mark Mainz
Kelly Macdonald (centre, with Pooky Quesnel and John Hannah) plays a mother out to avenge her murdered son in new thriller The Victim. Photograph: Mark Mainz
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It is the big new Scottish TV drama set to sharply divide audiences as it tackles moral dilemmas at the heart of the criminal justice system.

Two of the nation’s leading screen stars will be pitted against each other in a drama likely to have viewers wrestling with consciences as The Victim unfolds on BBC One over four successive nights next month.

Trainspotting, Brave and Boardwalk Empire star Kelly Macdonald admits she took on her “darkest” ever role in the legal thriller, playing Anna Dean, an “abrasive and unlikable” grieving mother in Edinburgh.

She is accused of revealing the identity of her young son’s 13-year-old killer and conspiring to have him murdered 15 years later.

In The Victim John Hannah, who played Inspector Rebus in the first TV adaptation of Ian Rankin’s best-selling novels, plays a detective unsympathetic to the ordeal the mother was put through by the schoolboy murderer dubbed the “devil child” in lurid tabloid headlines.

His colleagues show little enthusiasm for protecting bus driver Craig Myers, played by rising star James Harkness, after he is named online as notorious child killer Eddie J Turner.

Dean’s trial plays out at the High Court in Edinburgh amid flashbacks to the aftermath of the attack on Myers at his home in Port Glasgow, in Inverclyde, amid an ongoing mystery over whether he or not he is a convicted killer who has been given a new identity.

Playing Anna Dean, who hires a private investigator to try to unmask the killer of her nine-year-old son, was a far cry from the “goody two shoes” roles which Macdonald concedes she is often cast in.

She said: “It’s always down to the character for me. She really appealed to me because she is so unappealing. I found her quite abrasive and unlikable in places. It’s a very tragic story and just seemed very human. She doesn’t behave impeccably.

“The most awful thing has happened to her many years before and she’s never really got over it.

“Her grieving process has nowhere to go and the story is about her desperate attempt to make it right for her son. She can’t get past the fact that this person has served so little time and is able to get on with their life. It has turned her into a kind of crazed person. She is so affected that she is teetering on mental illness in places.

“She’s got absolutely no respect for the police and has lost faith in them. She’s gone off on her own and she thinks she has come very close to knowing who this man is now. Anna is so stubbornly on her path and doesn’t see how that is affecting everybody else.

“It is the darkest role I’ve had, but that’s the appeal. It’s my job. You kind of want to play dramatic roles and this is certainly that.”

The Victim has echoes of the 1993 murder of British toddler James Bulger and the fact that both his killers, who were then aged 10, have been living anonymously with new identities since being released from life sentences.

The Victim was being made by STV Productions for the BBC before the rape and murder of six-year-old Alesha MacPhail on the Isle of Bute. Her 16-year-old killer, Aaron Campbell, was named after his conviction after a judge agreed to lift a ban protecting his identity.

Shot on location in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Greenock, The Victim starts its four-night run on 8 April – less than a month after he was jailed for 27 years.

Writer Rob Williams insists he was initially inspired by Oscar Pistorious court case and the way it polarised public opinion, as well as the growing number of cases of people whose lives were being “changed forever” by vilification on social media.

He added: “Everybody will be able to name cases the story has echoes of but it’s not inspired by a single case. If I got too close to any case it would’ve steered the story too much. It’s really about the difference between what the law requires and what we require as human beings to say we’ve got justice.

“Crime on a human level is what inspires me. I really wanted to get under the skin of what a single crime does to an array of people and the ripple effect on families. It’s a family drama as much as crime.”

Macdonald insisted she did not do any research on real-life cases before filming began.

She added: “I wanted to honestly be able to say that I didn’t look at anything else and this wasn’t based on anything other than the script. It was all about the fictional story on the page.

“It’s a thriller and is a bit of a whodunnit. It’s also about how life is not black and white. It’s full of grey areas.

“You can sympathise with both characters. I hope that when people watch it their loyalties will shift as the story takes them into different places.”

Hannah, star of Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Mummy and Sliding Doors, felt the script of The Victim, was like a “dramatised documentary” when he first read it.

He added: “It didn’t have the usual tropes of a thriller and is quite complex in what it’s asking the audience to think about. It continually shifts the ground beneath you. It’s unsettling.

“It questions your own instinctive reactions and responses, which have become so prevalent in the social media age.

“Anyone who reads the newspapers is aware of what’s going on and what’s been going on, and the way social media nowadays comes into the whole justice process.

“It seems to be about the producess of justice. In some ways, there’s more than one victim to any crime and individuals become lost. Individuals are lost.

“As he (Rob) does brilliantly throughout this, he is arguing that is how it is meant to be. We’re not meant to empathise with someone and therefore find that they look innocent and that the other person is therefore guilty. It is a bit of a minefield.”

Hannah had played so many police officers, including Rebus, during his career that he had ruled out taking on further roles, Hannah admitted he was drawn to The Victim by the character of Detective Inspector Stephen Grover.

He added: “He feels the law is what it is and everybody has to abide by it. He certainly thinks that Anna is responsible for behaving outwith the law and that has to be pursued regardless of the rights and wrongs of her position. He is trying not to take a moral position while others around him are having a more understandable reaction to her scenario.”

As for the mystery over the past of Myers, Harkness said: “There is a lot to my character and you do find out a lot about him as you go along, but there is a lot to everybody else.

“It’s easy to pinpoint certain people, but it pulls the rug from under your feet. It’s up to the audience to decide who the victim is.”

Although a set replicating interior of the the High Court in Edinburgh was purpose-built at an STV studio facility in Glasgow, a host of locations around Edinburgh were used for filming, including Parliament, the City Chambers, the Castle Arms pub, the Cowgate and numerous closes off the Royal Mile.

Rosie Ellison, manager of the Film Edinburgh commission, said: “Edinburgh has a longstanding and successful history of hosting crime dramas and The Victim is another example where Edinburgh will be playing itself as a location.”