Criminal Justice is a very clever TV thriller which features some stand-out performances, an intriguing script, smart plotting and taut direction. It runs for five episodes of an hour each (originally shown on BBC TV on five consecutive nights), and follows the ghastly journey of young Ben Coulter who may (or may not) have killed a young woman during a wild one-night stand.
At first everything looks pretty cut and dried; so far, so clichéd, you might think. Ben wakes up after knocking back some serious booze and other recreational chemistry to discover he's sharing a semi in suburbia with a dead body - and it looks as if he's the murderer. Young Ben panics, flees, makes a hash of trying to cover his tracks, and is arrested and charged in no time flat. He's given a legal aid lawyer, Stone, who just seems to be cynically in the game for his fee and doesn't care about the innocence of his client. Then - to Ben's utter horror - he is denied bail and carted off to prison.
The following events details Ben's interaction with the jail hierarchy (not at all pleasant), the Police investigation, his relationship with his parents, the past of the murdered girl, his defence lawyers and their tactics - and it all meshes together to produce one of the best short-run dramas we've seen in years. There's nothing particularly original about any of the themes: the awfulness of prison life was revealed way-back-when in Scum, while much of the courtroom drama gallops along like a John Grisham novel (and plenty of the lawyers' behaviours seems pretty caricature. It makes for good TV though, even if it's not very likely!).
All through the drama, poor Ben doesn't seem to get a word in edgeways. He's dragged along by the formulaic progression of the criminal justice system, and struggles to get his side of the story across. When he finally can address the jury... you have to wonder if he wouldn't have been better keeping quiet!
Where Criminal Justice is most clever is in the way it subverts the audience's expectations and develops the main characters throughout the series. At first Ben looks to be utterly innocent: a bit dim, but surely not a murderer. Then we learn more... and we're not sure. Similarly, Pete Postlethwaite puts in a brilliant performance as his cellmate, who is rather more than he seems. Bill Paterson is the investigating detective who seems like a genuinely nice guy to start with - but is he only looking at the evidence he wants to see? And is he manipulating the other evidence to keep it from the jury? Best of all is Stone, Ben's solicitor, who may just be the most honest character of them all.
For those viewers who enjoy watching characters develop, Criminal Justice is especially interesting. All of the major players' lives are changed the murder and subsequent events; all the people who come into contact with Ben are affected to a degree. For some, the consequences are bitter but at least one of the major players finds some kind of redemption as the action draws to a close. (And if you aren't interested in these sub-plots, then you don't need to worry about them! The main theme is nore than enough to keep you on th edge of your seat).
Criminal Justice is a gripping, plot-twisting thriller which kept us hooked to the end. It also makes many very serious comments about the UK's legal system - but you can take or leave the moral message and just be carried away by the drama if you're that way inclined. Well worth watching again if you did see it on TV, because several subtle points stand up and slap you in the face on second viewing.