In my review of last week’s episode of The Town I claimed that 2012 had been a great year for drama on ITV however there are exceptions to that rule. Though not totally awful, I believe that new two-part drama The Poison Tree is one of those exceptions as it feels rushed, is riddled with clichés and has at least one central character that isn’t particularly likeable.
We start by meeting MyAnna Buring’s Karen Clarke who lives in a ramshackle cottage on the coast with her twelve year old daughter Alice. We see in Karen’s eyes that something is troubling her and after receiving anonymous phone calls she starts to fret that her past could be catching up with her. We then start to realise that something’s amiss with Karen’s life when she picks up her husband Rex, played by the excellent Matthew Goode, who has been in prison for the past twelve years. On the way back to their new home Rex makes Karen stop at a specific house on Queenswood Lane which evokes memories for both of them.
The drama then takes us back to when Karen had just left her Northern hometown and was getting used to being a student in London. One day at an art gallery she meets the eccentric and fascinating Biba who later befriends her and takes her under her wing, introducing her to her brother Rex.
Soon she experiences a summer of wine drinking and falling in love with Rex however their relationship is kept a secret from Biba as Rex believes she will react badly. We see an example of Biba’s temper when she discovers their photographer father has all but erased them from his life and when she vandalises his car he decides to cut them off and take their house from them. As their father delivers them an eviction notice Biba becomes more erratic and goes completely off the rails when she finds out about Karen and Rex’s relationship.
These events in the past all play their part in what is going on in the present as Karen, while glad to have Rex home, struggles to keep all of the mystery phone-calls and letters from him. The mystery is built up as Rex struggles to adjust into normal life including attempting to get a job as a landscape gardener and having an awkward dinner party with the neighbours. However we know something’s amiss as the pair agree to keep a dark secret from the past and in the final scene we find out exactly what that is.
My main issue with The Poison Tree is that it had to cram in a lot of plot but at the same time needed to build up the tension to this episode’s two exciting incidents. I think the central problem is that the story is one that deals with intrigue and suspense however as it’s been separated into only two parts these elements have been somewhat compromised in an effort to get on to the next part of the tale.
I also found the story of Rex’s rehabilitation from prison possibly the best part of the entire drama, however it had little time devoted to it instead we had to sit through a lot of Karen, Rex and Biba’s hazy days at university. These flashback scenes involving the trio for me were the most annoying of the entire drama thanks mainly to the character of Biba who generally comes off as an over-the-top cliché of a bohemian daddy’s girl. I’m not sure if it was the performance of Ophelia Lovebond, Erin Kelly’s original source material, Emilia di Girolama’s adaptation or a combination of all three but I found Biba incredibly annoying. Therefore I had little sympathy for her when her dad served her with an eviction notice and I also wondered why the likeable Karen was so drawn to this horrible creature in the first place.
That’s not to say that The Poison Tree didn’t have its moments but most of them came courtesy of Matthew Goode who was captivating the entire time he was on screen. His turn as a man struggling to cope with normal life after twelve years in prison was absolutely perfect from the long silent stares he delivered to his annoyance of not being able to get the job he wanted now he felt he’d reformed. Goode’s Rex added an element of humanity to the central mystery of The Poison Tree and even managed to not be that irritating when sticking up for his horrible sister. MyAnna Buring also did well anchoring the drama and successfully took the lead here after a year of playing supporting roles in both Blackout and White Heat. I thought she delivered a believable performance as a mother trying to shield her daughter from the horrors of the past but was unable to stop the threats arriving from an unknown source. I also thought the whole thing was well-shot with a great distinction made between the earlier more carefree days of university and the present day windswept beach locations.
I always think the mark of a good drama is one that has built up enough intrigue to make you tune in to watch the resolution or continuation of a certain plotline. Personally I didn’t feel The Poison Tree did this because, despite the great performances from Goode and Buring, I really didn’t care that much about why Karen was being tormented and what secrets the pair were hiding from their daughter. If ITV had allowed this adaptation to have been three parts rather than two then I feel the plot wouldn’t have felt as rushed but as it is The Poison Tree fell a little flat for me and I don’t believe it will be remembered as positively as the majority of dramas that the channel has produced in 2012.
Did you watch The Poison Tree? Did you enjoy it more than I did? Leave your comments below.