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What a week this has been for British TV drama, Monday saw the return of The Street and last night BBC2 gave us Freefall, Dominic Savage’s uncompromising account of the financial crisis. Following on from BBC1’s recent Occupation, Freefall can be seen to reflect the gentle flowerings of the revival of relevant and conscious television drama at the Beeb.

The most immediate strength of Freefall is the manner in which Savage emblematises the onset of the crisis within three identifiable characters from across the social spectrum, in doing so he renders an abstract economic idea in human terms, across the class system. The characterisation is three-fold: firstly there is Gus (Aidan Gellen), a high-flying banker who gorges himself on the mortgage markets, seemingly intoxicated by greed. Slightly further down the economic food chain is Dave (Dominic Cooper) a hugely successful and unscrupulous mortgage broker who misleads an old school friend into taking out a mortgage he could never afford. Said friend, Jim (Joseph Mawle), is a hardworking security guard and father of two, frustrated by his family’s limited existence on a council estate he needs little encouragement to ‘move up’ into home ownership. All three characters enjoy the fruits of the boom in the first half of the film and quickly realise the party is over in the second, with Savage bringing the action forward to 2008. 

While this structure may seem overly rigid, and even contrived in its three-way representation of the financial crisis’ protagonists and antagonists, Savage makes the characterisation work by underpinning it with bold formal and aesthetic motifs. In the most immediate sense, the dialogue is – partly at least – improvised. Actors occasionally stumble over the lines, just as we all do in everyday exchanges; the veracity of conversation and the authentic rhythm of dialogue is acutely observed and delivered here with consummate craft by Freefall’s highly impressive players. This aural and dialogical realism is reflected in Savage’s handheld camera; which is sometimes intensely close to its subjects – suggesting invasiveness or empathy depending on the situation – and sometimes distanced; observing characters unobtrusively or simply reflecting on their solitude. Savage is also fond of the jump-cut, deploying it repeatedly as a barrier to identification or at times reversing this intention and using it like a more formalised and conventional close-up, I’m thinking particularly of the moment in which Jim’s wife Mandy (Anna Maxwell-Martin) is told of the couple’s spiralling mortgage debts: the initial medium-shot of her on the phone suddenly jumps to a close-up as she realises the depths of their predicament. This almost coarse aesthetic register is contrasted with the manner in which Savage frames external environments, displaying an Antonioni-like affection for vast and static man-made spaces: think of the moment when a depressed Jim stares up to the skies in an isolated car park, or when Gus and Gary (Riz Ahmed) stand outside their offices as the markets begin to freeze.

Savage’s eclectic textual palate fosters a tone and an atmosphere in which the aforementioned narrative structure is never over-bearing or didactic. The pursuit of naturalism converges with a cinematic concern for space and environment while the ‘issues’ that the film engages with are persistently at its core. This is a story of today; a drama-documentary which is cinematic in its scope and televisual in its content.

Freefall is an example of British art about Britain, for British people. This is exactly what the BBC should be doing.

David Forrest

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