The City & The City episode 1 review
This review contains spoilers.
A world-weary cop with a tragic backstory, gravelly voiceover and statement leather coat, all that’s unfamiliar about Inspector Tyador Borlú is his name and where he lives. That’s very much the point: Borlú is an easy-to-walk-through doorway into the weird world of The City & The City. He’s walked straight out of noir genre convention to anchor us in this mind-bending premise.
Adapted by Red Riding’s Tony Grisoni from China Miéville’s 2009 novel, The City & The City explores the strange nature of political borders, and expands the idea of wilful blindness to lives being lived around us (rough sleepers, neighbours whose existence we’re aware of but don’t acknowledge) to a freaky conclusion. Two separate cities share overlapping space, their citizens forbidden from interacting or even perceiving one another. “That’s the way it is. That’s the way it’s always been,” Borlú tells us.
Episode one isn’t mired in exposition. We’re not told when and why the uncanny split took place, we simply see it in operation, with all its strange vocabulary (unifs, TCs, Breach – more on that here) . Borlú is firmly based in his own city, the tumbledown, 1970s-styled Besźel. At heightened moments, his shimmery glimpses of Ul Qoma, coded with the colour red, reveal it to be modern, sleek and better functioning than its dusty neighbour. Strong visual design, from Besźel’s retro technology to the layers of propagandist posters covering its city walls, orient us. Pains have clearly been taken by director Tom Shankland and team to make sure the audience feels on solid rather than shaky ground.
The lack of a precise historical, or even geographical context (the cities are somewhere in Europe, and, as we realise by meeting American couple the Gearys, considered a strange, even absurd, anomaly to the outside world) may leave some scratching their heads. Trust the storytellers, is our tip. Yes, the central premise takes a bit of thinking about, but the bones of the story have been made easy to grasp.
However wiggy its backdrop, The City & The City is a noir thriller with all the usual trimmings. The crime genre elements are so recognisable, they verge on cliché and doubtless deliberately so. We’ve all watched countless versions of the scene in which the dead body of a young woman is discovered on scrubland, dismissed as a sex worker and put on the mortuary slab. The same goes for the interrogations that follow, the irksome boss, the widening conspiracy… it’s all as familiar as air.
As is the set-up with Borlú’s missing wife Katrynia, whose absence is only revealed at the halfway mark. As we’ve seen done before, she appears to him part-fantasy, part-memory, part-hallucination. The character doesn’t feature in the novel and was added by Grisoni to make the story more accessible, linking the mystery of Katrynia’s disappearance to the murder of Mahalia Geary and the controversial academic David Bowden.
More help for the audience comes from Mandeep Dhillon as Borlú’s sweary sidekick Constable Corwi, who makes up a double-act that balances Morrissey’s jadedness with her dry humour and filthy mouth.
Most intriguing of all in episode one is Breach (no definite article, just Breach). This secret police force patrols the liminal spaces between the two cities, manifesting seemingly spontaneously wherever illegal crossover takes place. “Nobody loves Breach,” says Borlú, “but before Breach, there was only blood.”
Language like that, and ideas like the one this story is based on, demand that an audience sit up and lean in. They’re the drops of brain-quenching water in a TV desert where we’ve seen it all done before. Combining their strangeness with such recognisable patterns is a clever move. The careful work of this adaptation feels as though it will be well worth the investment.
All four episodes of The City & The City are available to stream now on BBC iPlayer.