Audrey Kupferberg: Happy Valley
Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh possibly has forsaken a very successful career in feature film production in favor of the mini-series format for cable, video, and streaming. He has made several strong comments about the advantages of creating dramas that are not chained to a two to three hour format. With his ten-hour Cinemax series, THE KNICK, he shows the advantages of the longer running time.
There are many distribution outlets for six to ten hour-long productions—particularly in the age of binge watching. Netflix offers a number of engrossing mini-series which they call Netflix Originals. One Netflix Original that I recently binge-watched is the 2014 BBC One mini-series HAPPY VALLEY.
Sarah Lancashire, one of the most powerful actors on the small screen today, stars as a West Yorkshire police sergeant, Catherine Cawood, and this is one of the most outstanding performances of the last few years. HAPPY VALLEY is a taut drama of the upheavals in the life of Catherine and her family since the apparent rape and the subsequent suicide of her daughter almost a decade before the action begins. The series is created by Sally Wainwright, no stranger to writings about Yorkshire, as she also is the creator of the very popular mini-series LAST TANGO IN HALIFAX.
In HAPPY VALLEY, Wainwright provides viewers with a new and different look at life in Halifax. Over six hours, the actions of several groups of people take twists and turns which end up in storms of emotions and violence. As a couple of the characters state, actions have consequences, and what results is the explosion of the daily lives of Catherine and others as they go from one devastating situation to another. Illness, drug peddling and addiction, rape, kidnapping, and family issues such as parenting responsibilities and divorce… these issues are dealt with in intimate terms.
All six hour-long episodes are directed with a special appreciation for the inner thoughts of the characters. There are many long-held close-ups of Catherine in particular. While extreme violence is sometimes depicted, there also is time for reaction shots where deep thoughts and emotions are recorded.
There is one very nasty villain throughout the drama named Tommy, a twisted soul capable of terrible acts. But he is surrounded by others who are not so obviously evil, yet who cause evil to occur. The manner in which bad things result from only moderately bad behavior is an interesting aspect of the HAPPY VALLEY drama.
Still, if we are to accept that HAPPY VALLEY is a credible drama, then one needs to accept the fact that horrific cruelty and satanic evil exist in our world, even in seemingly sleepy small towns. In today’s world, it is not hard to accept that evil lurks all over. The bleak older streets of Halifax may not offer viewers the more dreamy spires of Oxford. That is evident, but HAPPY VALLEY has as much crime, excitement, and human drama as any situation Inspector Morse ever encountered!
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She teaches film studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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