The Last Witness is the sixth—and the most highly praised—of the Prime Suspect stories produced by England's Granada Films and premiered on the BBC. At the center of the series is the actress Helen Mirren, recently named a Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. A veteran of the Shakespearean stage, Mirren has brought a gritty intelligence to a number of avant-garde film roles, and she has earned awards from the Cannes Film Festival and two Oscar nominations, most recently for The Madness of King George. However, it may well be the part of Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Jane Tennison in the Prime Suspect films that will emerge as the signature role of her career.
Until Mirren first appeared as Inspector Tennison, most female detectives on film still lingered in the shadow of Agatha Christie's heroines. In the traditional British mystery, female detectives, often slightly eccentric and disarmingly gentle, venture into the drawing rooms of country estates, talk to the butlers, and deduce the villain. Logic prevails; danger seems tame. By contrast, as Mirren notes, Tennison is one of the first female detectives to appear in dramas that are contemporary, urban, and often "dark and edgy."
The British Immigration Problem
The Last Witness gets one edge by touching a British nerve about immigration and national security. In the film, no sooner does word about the murder of a Bosnian woman hit the news than a conservative politician goes on the air to lament the "amount of people who have flooded into the UK . . . changing the face of London." By their own report, the filmmakers seek to present a changing London as one of the "characters." While earlier films in the series were set in industrial Manchester, The Last Witness moves to London, blending modern urban images, such as the Millennium Bridge, with shadowy glimpses of Saint Paul's Cathedral and the Tower Bridge, both familiar icons of the historic city. That juxtaposition of past and present underscores the sociological change. One of the world's most cosmopolitan cities, London has become a multi-ethnic and religiously diverse metropolis, a haven for political refugees and immigrants from war-torn regions of the world. Even among the dedicated and well-meaning veterans in the police force in the film, we hear racist and reactionary voices perplexed by this change. Some of them harbor fears that among the population of illegal immigrants are several "foreign criminals." The Last Witness insists that there are indeed criminals hiding behind British cover, even as it shows sympathy for London's silent and poor refugees.
The immanence of change in The Last Witness is also apparent in how its heroine faces the challenges of a rising generation. At age 54, DCI Tennison is old enough to retire by choice but too young to be forced out, even though she senses pressure to step aside. For years she has struggled for her place in the male-dominated police, realizing that women of her generation may never reach the top posts within the British force. On the one hand, she must now work for the men whose careers have skyrocketed by her own, including a younger former assistant who is now her primary supervisor. Her chief rival is the character Simon Finch, who personifies the new breed of British inspectors—young, university-educated, and ambitious. He is what the older detectives call "a tick in the box," an articulate manager who climbs the professional ladder so quickly that you can almost mark it with the ticking of the clock. On the other hand, Tennison must fight her own mixed feelings about a new generation of women in the police force. In the early 1980s, as she launched her career, women generally had to choose between family responsibilities and the long hours of detective work. Now middle-aged and single, Tennison has seen the government adopt maternity leave policies and new programs that allow women to have both a career and a family. She must fight a quiet resentment of those who will never fully understand the sacrifices she had to make to open doors for them. Despite its obvious sympathies for Tennison, the film still portrays how these personal rivalries can interfere with her judgment, leading to some rash decisions. The Last Witness will also show how Tennison discovers a surprising reservoir of moral depth and experience in her elderly father, a sign that she too can underestimate an older generation. The fact that the veteran Tennison, who is clearly the film's moral center, has much to learn is one measure of the film's candor and complexity.
In one of its most touching scenes, The Last Witness will intimate that the father's memory of World War II finds an echo in his daughter's encounter with wartime atrocities in the Balkans. What began as a story about a conventional murder case, full of the usual petty inter-office rivalries, develops into an ethically complex geopolitical tale.
Tennison follows her clues all the way to the former Yugoslavia. Violence between ethnic and religious groups in this region— Croats, Bosnians, Serbs, Gypsies, Jews, Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox Christians—has flared for centuries. Forged as a federation of disparate states by the Communist leader Josip Broz Tito shortly after World War II, Yugoslavia had begun to splinter after Tito's death and the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1992, the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina split away from a fragmenting Yugoslavia and won recognition by the United Nations. As several new nations—such as Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia—split off from the Yugoslavian federation, Serbian nationalist Slobodan Miloshevich emerged as the dominant power in the region, and he proposed the uniting of all Serbian people in a single nation. He chose a patriotic holiday to launch a crackdown on Serbia's ethnic Albanians and responded aggressively to the Bosnian declaration of independence. Armed with the resources of the former Yugoslav army and the fourth-largest arsenal in Europe, he used massive weapons to bomb Bosnia's cities and villages. One million Bosnians were dislocated; hundreds of thousands died. Serb nationalist forces seized over two-thirds of Bosnia's territory. The Serbian nationalists undertook an "ethnic cleansing" by murder, imprisonment, rape and terror. Denied police protection by the nationalist authorities, non-Serbs (Muslims, Croats, Gypsies, and Jews) were isolated and subjected to brutal attacks, often carried out with impunity in broad daylight.
Pressure on Western governments to intervene to stop the bloodshed and to track down the killers who fled into Western Europe was substantial. Yet, as The Last Witness reveals, Western police were confronted with the moral dilemma of granting immunity to former killers in exchange for inside information about the leaders of the paramilitary death squads. Inspired by sorrow, ambition, guilt and a hunger for justice, Tennison is eager solve her case and bring the murderer to trial. But does her own drive for a solution in her one case compromise a larger geopolitical strategy for stopping an ethnic cleansing? The Last Witness faces that hard question.