By Will Barber Taylor
Directed by Primetime Emmy-nominee Jack Gold (Goodnight Mister Tom) and produced by Dickie Bamber (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), Praying Mantis is based on the novel by French author Hubert Monteilhet, and skilfully adapted for screen by BAFTA-winner Philip Mackie (The Naked Civil Servant). This highly regarded and sought after two-part television movie was one of Channel 4’s earliest commissioned dramas, and is a smart and absorbing mystery with plenty of twists and surprises to keep audiences guessing all the way.
With a chilling musical score composed by Primetime Emmy-nominee Carl Davies (Cranford) that fits the ambiance of the film, and featuring a well-known cast of supporting characters including Clive Swift (Keeping Up Appearances), Barbara Young (Coronation Street), Kevin McNally (Pirates of the Caribbean), Friedrich Von Thun (Schindler’s List) and David Schofield (Gladiator), Praying Mantis is an intelligent, engrossing tale that will keep audiences captivated by the performances of its colourful cast of cunning and deplorable characters right until the end.
Praying Mantis is a series that sets itself apart from any other TV series produced during the 1980s. Set in a subdued, creepy dreamlike world, it has more in common with the work of French Impressionist painters of the late 19th century than it does with other TV series produced during the 80s. Its dreamlike quality does not make the series light or airy though; do not mistake it for something that does not have a strong story. The ethereal quality of it simply makes it more enjoyable – it is a viewing experience like no other and has to be seen to be believed. The light, almost transparent quality of the drama is helped by the quality of the acting which effortlessly brings Philip Mackie’s daring and provocative script to life.
The acting throughout the series is exceptionally good, particularly from Cherie Lunghi as Beatrice, employed by Paul Canova (Pinkas Braun) who she engages in a daring affair under the nose of Paul’s deceitful and vindictive second wife, Vera (Carmen Du Sautoy). Lunghi is at the core of the story – it is her actions which put into course the actions that play out over the series. Her actions ensure that the lives of Canova, Vera and her eventual husband Christian (Jonathan Pryce) are brought crashing together. Lunghi displays this through a subtle and deceptive performance – she plays everyone around her off one another pitting Canova again Christian and Canova against his wife. Lunghi is particularly brilliant at the climax of the first part of the series – it is her reaction to Christian that is engaging and so remarkably dramatic.
The writing by Philip Mackie is excellent; he brings the lives of Canova, Beatrice, Vera and Christian to life in a realistic yet dreamlike way. His writing is wonderfully modern and he weaves the plot so exceptionally that he makes the series supremely watchable and engaging. Without Mackie’s skill in crafting a solid and enjoyable script the series would not stand as well as it does.
Praying Mantis is a wonderful series that combines personal drama with high concepts of revenge and morality. It is enjoyable not only as a wonderful piece of drama but also as a piece of social history – it is fascinating to see the evolution of drama from the early 80s to the present day. It demonstrates how experimental drama could be then whilst presenting a story of revenge, love and deceit as compelling as Macbeth and as hauntingly phantasmal as a painting by Monet.