The Secrets – The Dilemma Review: Olivia Colman and Alison Steadman shine in this controversial drama

by Matt D
Olivia Colman Alison Steadman

Olivia Colman Alison Steadman

Two years ago writer/director Dominic Savage brought us True Love; five half hour dramas that featured self-contained stories about love in modern Britain. Tonight Savage returns to TV as director of the first episode of The Secrets, a series of self-contained dramas which he has also executive produced. As the title would suggest, each episode deals with a different secret whilst each instalment is penned by a debut TV writer. Tonight’s episode, The Dilemma is written by Nick Payne; a successful playwright who has written two of The Secrets’ five instalments.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that The Dilemma was written by somebody with theatrical experience as it does feel like a one-act play. The dilemma of the title belongs to pregnant vet Pippa who in the opening scene discovers that her mother’s cancer is now terminal. Pippa’s mother Angela requests that her daughter help her end her life before the pain becomes unbearable. Pippa then struggles with her mother’s request and finds little help from husband Shaun who believes ending her mother’s life is just plain wrong. Pippa begins contemplating the matter further and eventually comes to a decision after a break-in at the surgery where she works. The final scenes of The Dilemma are beautifully handled with mother and daughter sharing a few meaningful looks before the drama comes to its inevitable conclusion.

I think the biggest problem with The Dilemma is that twenty-eight minutes isn’t nearly enough time to cover a subject as topical as assisted suicide. Although Payne did take time to display Angela’s physical torment I didn’t think enough was done to explain just why she wanted her life to end at that particular moment. I feel that more time was needed to establish the extent of Angela’s illness before Pippa came to her ultimate decision. However I did feel that, given the restricted time, Payne made the audience care about the drama’s two central figures. It was clear how much love there was between Pippa and Angela and that the latter was somebody whose love for life was slowly starting to leave her body. Pippa’s pregnancy, and her and Shaun’s struggle to find a name for their unborn baby, was another neat little narrative touch which played into the drama’s final scene. In some ways I feel that Payne wanted to make The Dilemma a drama about the unconditional love between a mother and a daughter rather than a story about assisted suicide. But the fact that Pippa’s quandary is incorporated into the title makes it seem like this an issue-based drama first and foremost.

Olivia Colman

Savage’s direction adds to the emotional core of Payne’s story as he allows his camera to slowly pan in on various scenes which almost feels as if we’re eavesdropping on the conversations between mother and daughter. Savage also allows certain scenes to convey different emotions whether it is the pale, haunting nature of the hospital waiting room or the cosy surroundings of Angela’s bedroom. Unlike a lot of other dramas, The Dilemma doesn’t use a lot of music so every time a song does play it makes the scene feel special. For example the use of ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ during the scene in which Shaun and Angela smoke marijuana gives a playful feel to the scene whilst Angela’s dance to ‘For Once in My Life’ feels especially poignant. Ultimately it’s Savage’s use of visual techniques that allows Payne’s story to feel like more than just a televised play.

However, possibly The Dilemma’s greatest strength is the fact that Pippa and Angela are played by Olivia Colman and Alison Steadman respectively. The fact that two of the country’s best actresses are involved in The Dilemma certainly makes it an easier watch as both are able to convey their characters’ emotions beautifully. I could watch Colman in absolutely anything and in The Dilemma she’s in her element; playing a conflicted character who is struggling to do the right thing. Colman is one of those actresses who can convey plenty of emotion whilst saying nothing at all and it’s a skill that’s well-utilised throughout the drama. After seeing her wasted in the mediocre sitcom Boomers, it’s great to see Alison Steadman being pushed here as a woman with a terminal illness. Steadman portrays Angela as a woman who is attempting to laugh in the face of her illness but at the same time somebody who realises her time is up. Steadman and Colman are completely believable as a mother and daughter and their chemistry is undeniable making the final scenes even more gripping. Steve Oram makes the most of his supporting role as Pippa’s husband Shaun and shares some great chemistry with Colman. Despite playing the fool sometimes, Oram makes Shaun into the voice of reason as he attempts to talk his wife out of going through with her plan.

Secrets Cast

On one hand I was disappointed with The Dilemma, as I felt that it was a drama that could have done with being at least fifteen minutes longer. Payne’s concept is definitely strong enough to be its own beast rather than one of five stand-alone dramas. I wanted to spend longer in the company of these characters and I felt a few more scenes could’ve made the final act even more emotional. At the same time there was still much to enjoy about The Dilemma which featured realistically-drawn characters and was well-directed by the reliable Savage. But ultimately The Dilemma will be remembered for the two brilliant performances from Steadman and Colman who both make the drama a joy to watch from beginning to end.

Did you enjoy The Dilemma? Did you feel it should have been longer?

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