July 08, 2019
The inexpressible pain of the situation is deeply felt in this hard-hitting series about non-disclosure agreements – even if its characters are not yet well-realised enough
Dark Money review, a child abuse drama that is slight but horribly real
We are living in a time in which any play, book, film or television programme about any of the multitudinous dark aspects of humanity can almost be guaranteed to come out just as its subject is hitting the headlines in real life. Prescience to the point of clairvoyance is becoming standard. You could try and find comfort in this, if you were desperate.
The new BBC One drama Dark Money – by Levi David Addai, who wrote the award-winning 2016 drama Damilola, Our Beloved Boy – debuted hours after a court in the US charged the billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein with sex-trafficking dozens of underage girls. The news followed reporting by the press of alleged abuse, a decade of lawsuits by people claiming to be victims, investigations by local and federal authorities and a non-prosecution deal struck in Florida in 2008, by which Epstein pleaded guilty to state charges, spent 13 months in jail, paid settlements to victims and was registered as a sex offender. If you think that is not similar enough to Dark Money’s tale of a Hollywood producer who abuses the child star of his latest film – well, it is a four-part drama. Who knows what psychic TV we will have to choose from a month from now?
In the opening episode of Dark Money, Sam (Jill Halfpenny, from Waterloo Road and EastEnders) and Manny Mensah (Babou Ceesay, who played the murdered boy’s father in the Damilola Taylor drama) welcome home their 13-year-old son, Isaac (Max Fincham), from the adventure of starring in a Hollywood blockbuster. They are eager to hear all about it, but Isaac creeps upstairs to gaze stricken at something on his phone. His parents come up to check on him. “I’m sorry,” he says as he hands over his phone to them and they press play.
“I don’t want to,” he says fearfully and bravely as producer Jotham Starr enters his hotel room. “I haven’t asked you,” says Starr. “I don’t like it,” says the boy. “Just help me out. I helped you out, right?” says the man, as the sound of belts unbuckling are heard.
What follows is the slow – possibly too slow for the viewer – revelation to the Mensahs of their powerlessness. A visit to a solicitor teaches them that they would have to pursue their case in the US, where there is no legal aid whatsoever, while laying their family open to attacks by the defence counsel and Isaac to details being made public in the UK, which would not count as contempt of court. Manny contacts a journalist who has worked on a similar story, but chickens out of meeting him, knowing that his son wants no one else to know and leery of the potential pitfalls of using unofficial channels.
Cheryl (Rebecca Front), Isaac’s chaperone – if she can be said to be worthy of the title – puts them in touch with Starr’s “people” and a meeting is set up. A lawyer with a basilisk stare and his entourage look at the video, assure the Mensahs that it is probative of nothing as it doesn’t show anyone’s face. Nevertheless, they offer a £3m settlement in exchange for them signing a non-disclosure agreement and providing proof that the video has been deleted. The offer is available for the next five minutes.
The final minutes of the episode show the Mensahs in their beautiful new home. Sam is upstairs, gazing bleakly round her bedroom. Isaac is sitting silently on the edge of their pool, alone in the crowd of friends whooping with delight around him. Manny is out on the verandah, clutching the hand wound he got by clutching a knife in fury when he happened across a headline about Starr.
It feels, so far, like too slight a piece. It is the simple horror of the idea – of the existence – of child abuse that does the heavy lifting, with the characters not yet fine-grained enough for us to feel their personal agony and loss. Also, the question of what we would do in their situation is too far removed from likelihood to be a compelling draw.
There are, however, enough moments to keep us there. The parents sleeping each side of Isaac the night he shares his burden with them, underscoring the deep perversion of those who would do otherwise with a vulnerable child. Isaac wearily head-butting his dad’s chest before he goes back to school the day after he has shown them the video, because there are not enough words. Manny swaying gently from side to side in the final shots, in the grip of inexpressible pain far greater than his injured hand.
So many loved boys, so many ways to do them harm.
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