The New Season of ‘Accused’ Is a Satisfying Murdersession

Just prior to her turn as the despicable Broadchurch detective Ellie Miller, Olivia Colman excels again in BBC America’s new drama, Accused, in which Colman plays Nanna Birk Larsen, a real-life murderer in the early twentieth century who confessed her crimes but never did prison time for them. Instead, Birk Larsen escaped to the English countryside, where she committed many more murders, before she finally got caught.

Accused tells the story of how this female eccentric ended up living, at her far-from-exemplary age, near the border of the Dorset countryside where Birk Larsen had originally committed her murders. The locale lends itself to a surprising and idealistic tonal resonance that is immediately apparent in the first episode, in which Birk Larsen and Birk Larsen’s two younger sisters are transported in the company of Birk Larsen’s photographer granddaughter, Maud (played by Charlize Theron), to Birk Larsen’s wealthy family home in Dorset. (The series was conceived as a partnership between producer Colman and the legendary British filmmaker Mike Leigh, whose films include Bright Young Things, Naked, Topsy-Turvy, and Happy-Go-Lucky.)

Author Susannah Clapp (Last Tango in Halifax) wrote the first episode. And while the overall mood is clearly domestic — there are dinner parties, tea parties, walking trips, private walks, and literary readings in the air — Clapp writes her first episode of Accused in a consistently compelling and compellingly original way. She captures the cunning nature of Birk Larsen’s murder techniques (which both her and Maud learn from Dr. Alfred Morris, a helpful professor of criminology who listens to Birk Larsen talk about her premeditated ways of killing) and the confidence that propelled Birk Larsen through her crimes.

And then she excels at this sort of thing, by keeping her writing extremely highly specific to Birk Larsen, who appears to have lived in the Dorset countryside as a boy, then as a young woman, then as a septuagenarian and finally as a legend. By the time viewers watch the actual Maud come face to face with Birk Larsen as a grown woman, Birk Larsen’s wit, insouciance, charm, her insistence on such complexities as new potatoes and chicken salad, and her competence as a con artist have made her seem beyond compare.

Why Colman, a woman with an obvious and indisputable gift for acting, is cast as Birk Larsen is, of course, purely incidental. Birk Larsen is playing herself and her brutal past has inevitably changed her into a showoff, with nothing left to hide or apologize for. Maud, upon her visit to the Birk Larsen home, briefly understands Birk Larsen as a different person than when she had first met her, but it is largely Colman’s performance that makes Birk Larsen seem worth spending a fascinating hour with.

In the end, Accused’s focus is on Birk Larsen as she escapes her past and continues to try to make sense of her life and her crimes. In this way, it is one of the best British dramas, if not the best, since Broadchurch. The murder itself, part of a family circle involving Birk Larsen, Maud, Maud’s husband, and Maud’s brother, does not really serve to drive the program in a particularly meaningful way, but the story’s subtext and the series’ title are appropriate for the series as a whole, which all seems set up to wring the mystery of Birk Larsen’s crimes from the audiences’ cold hearts.

MORE COVERAGE: Accused Review

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