Monday, 20 February 2017

Review: Umbre (Shadows)

UMBRE

HBO produced 8 part series
New to SBS OnDemand

This review is riddled with spoilers.

Adapted from an Australian series, Small Town Gangster (which I can’t recall seeing), HBO made the decision to adapt an Australian story to a Romanian setting: Bucharest to be exact.

Umbre translates as 'Shadows' in Romanian.

I’d been drawn to watch Umbre after reading it’s irresistible marketing pitch – it’s a crime series, in the style of Breaking Bad. 

First impressions were good, getting straight into a scene that was both intriguing and set the tone for the entire series.  The palate is dirty yellows and greys.  The opening scene gives us our first sight of our star, and it’s always good to see actors that are unfamiliar.  


A good start from the opening scene, and then boom – the characters started to speak.

Now, I know there are many conversations between men that I'll never be privy to, and I may not really understand the camaraderie between men.  But in Umbre, the dialogue strongly suggests that when men get together, the talk is ripe for misogyny.  Ripe? According to Umbre, it’s rancid.

According to Umbre, they say things out loud in Romania, that obviously never in 50 years of Australian tv has any screen writer been game enough to write for our admittedly sanitized tv land.

A steady consumption of Nordic-noir with increasingly eccentric female lead detectives had obviously lulled me into a false impression of European gender relations.

In Umbre, references to women are horrible.  Beyond horrible.  It made the show nearly unwatchable.  But the production values, and damn it, the story, was interesting.  I wanted to see what was going to happen.  Would one man finally go to far and have his tongue ripped out by a woman who’d just had it with the foul banter?

The sheer awfulness of the dialogue abates a little or maybe one becomes numb to it, once the show’s style has been bedded down.  There are some casual references to female sex slaves that are pretty rank. And then the main character hits his daughter in the face, in one touching scene of fatherly concern.

Bloody hell. 

Amongst all of this there are some genuine laugh out loud moments, despite my revulsion at the ongoing mistreatment of women.

The lead actor - Serban Pavlu - is a big name in Romanian theatre.  The main character, Relu, is somewhat of a devoted family man, trying to provide for his family.  Here lies the similarity to Walter White, as slim as it is.

A huge bloke, I can’t seem to recall Relu ever changing expression, and this includes the first episode where he and a number of other men are hairy backed and full frontal naked.  But he grew on me and it helps that he is taller than most with a distinctive stiff backed walk, so it was easy to pick him out in every scene.  Should I mention that the cast are mostly dark haired and/or olive skinned?  Not really important I suppose, but the difference from the all beige colour chart of Australian tv is hard not to notice.

The stand out performance that crept up on me was the old Uncle.   He’s the kind of uncle that lives in the shed down the back, watches a lot of porn and is well known to the local prostitutes.  Not the kind of uncle that I am familiar with, but he is engaging, if slightly repulsive. 

Filmed in 2014, it was HBO’s first foray into producing a tv series in Europe.  There’s been no mention that I can see, after a quick internet scan, of a second series.  I’ve wondered why over the past couple of days after binge-watching the entire series on Friday night.

Granted, there may well be others wondering what the fuss is about, as they steadily consume porn and don’t blink an eye at the exploitation of sex slaves and underpaid workers imported from eastern European countries.

Or maybe the question should be, who isn’t aware of these practices that are blithely depicted in Umbre?  Which country, which city, which sleepy little country town hasn't swept aside concerns about what happens in their parks, their truck stops and their back streets?   In polite company, most would decry the dehumanization of women and children, but honestly what are they doing about it, besides contributing to the demand for these ‘products’. 

Domestic violence is most generally condemned, but women and children continue to die even in the nicest, most affluent neighbourhoods of the most advanced countries.  

They die a lot more often if they are black in Australia. Though black men will say on national tv, they can't sit there as a black man and let that kind of slur go unchallenged.  They need to sit there, and listen and learn how their purse mouthed silence, and deflecting of the root causes of death for so many black women in numbers that increase each year, is a form of collusion.

Is Umbre a comment on that hypocrisy?  Is it meant to unsettle European audiences? Does it mirror the crime and debauchery that the US continues to spread around the world, with their enchanting sound tracks, their ethereal opening credits and their cliff hanger endings?

Is Umbre just a little too real?  

Is it simply too ugly to capture a large and devoted audience?

In the end, what I found grated the most was the depiction of Relu’s wife.  Perhaps it was too much to hope for that in such a male-dominated series as Umbre, at least one of the female characters had some dimensions to her.

Which leaves me with the final thought – who was the intended audience?

I can’t deny the possibility that it may appeal to some viewers that the predominantly male cast didn't wax their bodies into glistening fake tanned perfection, and the killers rarely used guns.

If Umbre is only targeting male viewers, that brings the makers up well short of the audience a big budget production requires.  If this was the intention (which I somehow doubt) they got what they paid for.  It feels like observing a group of foul mouthed men, as they stumble, maim and kill their way through a sweaty, grimy and pointless existence. 

In regards to the crime and corruption, frankly that’s how I pictured a country that I really only know about via grainy news stories of the Romanian Revolution, and many years before, the sublime athleticism of Nadia Comaneci.

Despite one scene shot in what looks very much like a Bunnings, I had to wonder, if what I saw in Umbre, with its mix of wealth and poverty:  is this the aftermath of a country recovering from a turbulent past?

The IMDB site rated Umbre a 9.  I’m not sure how that happened.

Ignoring the dialogue for a moment, it’s got enough going for it to garner a high rating. But the violence and marginalization of women was too much for me. 

I have a high threshold for violence, though have been known to fall asleep during Game of Thrones from sheer boredom. I watched the entire series of Umbre after being drawn in by the story, after all.

But would I recommend Umbre?  I’m not really sure how I’d go about that.

‘Umbre… it’s all kinds of horrible but there was some comic relief, until the best character dies.  But if you can’t handle one more Nordic crime series, travel to the dark side and give it a whirl. 
And if you can't rethink your deflection of the reality of black men being largely responsible for the death of black women, it's exactly your kind of show.’