Helen Mirren's brilliant performance.

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April 16 2004 6:03 PM

Great Dame

In Prime Suspect 6, Helen Mirren proves she's still got it.

Seven years later: stressed out and obsessed as ever
Seven years later: stressed out and obsessed as ever

When the British crime serial Prime Suspect debuted in 1991, a new genre was born: the feminist police procedural. As Inspector Jane Tennison, the newly promoted head of a London homicide squad, Helen Mirren was driven, careerist, reluctant to admit fault, suspicious of her fellow officers, neglectful of her personal life—in short, a royal bitch. She was also tough, vulnerable, sexy, self-deprecating and wholeheartedly committed to her job—easily the most complex and compelling female character on television (or for that matter, any medium) in the '90s. The Prime Suspect franchise lasted through 1997; the five movie-length episodes have since been released on video to an ever-growing cult audience. Now, 13 years since we first met Jane Tennison, and seven years since her last appearance in Prime Suspect 5, Dame Helen Mirren is back to reprise the role in Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness, which will air on PBS in two-hour installments over the next two Sundays, April 18 and 25, at 9 p.m. (Prime Suspects 1 and 2 will also be re-aired on Masterpiece Theatre starting May 2. Check your local listings for airtimes.)

Detective Chief Inspector Tennison has become Detective Superintendent Tennison, in charge of managing all ongoing homicide investigations for the London Metropolitan Police. At 54, she passes a mandatory physical exam (during which we see her lie baldfaced about her drinking and smoking, and roll her eyes in answer to the question, "Are you pregnant?"), and she faces pressure from fellow officers to take early retirement, or at least step down from her high-stress command post. Not bloody likely. Instead, Jane strong-arms a junior officer, Simon Finch (Ben Miles), into letting her take over his latest murder case: A young Bosnian Muslim woman has been found dead at a construction site. Finch suspects a link to the Balkan mafia, but Jane's hunch takes her even further; in the course of the investigation, she will travel to Bosnia to investigate a 1992 war crime that may be connected with this London killing. 

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While Prime Suspect 6's whodunit apparatus is satisfying enough to keep things barreling along for the full four hours, it's the procedural details that set the show apart from run-of-the-mill crime television. The intricate mind games back at the police station are just as compelling as the principal plotlines about ethnic cleansing and the black-market cigarette trade. Finch and Tennison both have a professional stake in their differing theories about the girl's murder—he wants to make a career, she to hang on to one—and you can see each of them wince when evidence turns up supporting the "opposing" side. Never mind that they're supposed to be working together to solve a brutal crime—these are smart, ambitious detectives, and much as they may care about catching the bad guy, they'd also really like to be right.

Prime Suspect's great innovation has always been that it shows Tennison doing something a woman on television is rarely allowed to do with such skill and gusto: her job. In many ways, this is a show about what it means to love your work, and regardless of whether they've ever busted a serial killer, many women can identify with Tennison's dilemma. In order to rise to the top of her field, she must, as Lady Macbeth said, "unsex" herself, disregarding every quality traditionally valued as feminine. Jane Tennison lives alone in a bleakly generic apartment, sips scotch, and mulls over case files late into the night. She has occasional ill-fated affairs, which are portrayed not as star-crossed melodramas but as honest, well-intentioned blunders. In Prime Suspect 3 Jane got pregnant by one of her lovers, and in Prime Suspect 4, she promptly—and unapologetically—had an abortion.

In the interrogation room, Jane plays the roles of both good cop and bad cop; she can sweet-talk suspects into giving up the goods, but she's not above playing dirty as well. In Prime Suspect 1, Jane was genuinely shocked by a fellow officer's unethical tampering with a murder victim's address book; now, she's illegally taping conversations and using them to browbeat prisoners into naming their accomplices. She's gone from by-the-book stickler to maverick cop, but even as we question her methods, we trust her motives. Jane may be a loose cannon, but if the Balkan mafia were after me, I'd want her on my side.

At times, Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness is painted with too broad a brush—OK, a trowel. Director Tom Hooper lays on the stylized visual effects—fisheye lenses, high-contrast lighting—as if unaware that the grubby, low-tech look of the old Prime Suspects was part of their charm. And now that the show's creator, British novelist Lynda LaPlante, has left the crime scene (she hasn't written an episode since Prime Suspect 3), the story arcs have lost some of their psychological subtlety. In the closing scenes, for example, the suave, canny villain of The Last Witness, sensing the law closing in around him, does something so thoroughly stupid that we retroactively question all that's come before. But you don't watch Prime Suspect for the plot. As one UK critic mooned, "You could happily sit and watch the play of expression on Helen Mirren's face while bodies pile up, unregarded. It looks so damn natural, like a fountain or a fire." Mirren's performance is towering; in Jane Tennison, she has created a female character so multidimensional, she makes Lady Macbeth look as cartoonlike as Cruella DeVille.

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.