The Stranger is the latest Harlan Coben novel to receive the Netflix treatment, following the 2018 adaptation of Safe.
It follows the story of Adam Price (Richard Armitage), a lawyer, husband and father of two. For all intense and purposes, he has the perfect life: A loving wife and nice kids. But his whole world is suddenly turned upside down when he is approached by a mysterious woman (Hannah John-Kamen). She informs Price that his wife, Corinne (Dervla Kirwin), has been keeping a big, dark secret from him. Learning this to be true, Price confronts Corinne, who asks him to give her some time to explain. Soon after she vanishes and Price begins a desperate search to track her down and find out what’s really going on.
Coben oftens writes crime drama fiction that focuses on a number of different characters following various storylines. The Stranger continues that trend and although it begins with a focus on Price, it soon widens its scope to include several other narratives and characters. At first they all appear unconnected and seemingly separate. However, as The Stranger unfolds, links start to develop between them and it becomes increasingly clear that they are all part of a bigger puzzle.
Although the TV version of The Stranger switches the setting of America to England, there are moments where the show feels like a fast-paced American TV show. This was also the case for Safe but it’s an influence that has cropped up in more and more British crime productions over the last ten years. Other shows such as Luther still retain that sense of gritty realism and down to earth style but also have a handful of fast-paced chase sequences and moments of intense action.
On the one hand, this does make The Stranger quite a thrilling watch. There is a suitable amount of time given to character depth and some good moments of realism. At the same time, there are a handful of dramatic and exciting sequences throughout the season. The tension is built up well and there’s a rolling momentum and pace to these scenes, which means the show doesn’t drag or coast along too slowly.
On the other hand, it sometimes makes for an uneven tone to the show. The characters feel very down to earth and relatable, living fairly normal lives with even police characters such as Johanna Griffin (Siobhan Finneran) and Wesley Ross (Kadiff Kirwan) seeming like the sort of people you could bump into down the pub. So it can sometimes jar a little when characters start waving guns around like in an American cop show.
Price is a very well crafted character initially. Armitage plays the part of a concerned dad well, following the clues step by step and approaching people and talking to them. Later on in the show, though, he becomes much more aggressive and reckless. Admittedly, it does demonstrate the physiological impact from being unable to find Corrine, but it also feels like it is straying into Taken terrority, as he becomes more volatile and violent.
Similarly to Safe, The Stranger is a show where everyone has their own secrets. This provides a good deal of variety in terms of storytelling, while also making it difficult to actually figure out who is responsible for what and how they all link to one another. John-Kamen’s character sheds light on some of these but cleverly she is a character who is also shrouded in mystery.
Most of the mini narratives are really well devised. There are a few that don’t quite hold the same weight, which is a shame, but for the most part they are interesting and engaging. It also does throw in a few too many red herrings, particularly in the last episode. While this allows for more of a dramatic big reveal at the end, it does feel a bit too convoluted and contrived.
The performances are one of the strongest aspects of The Stranger and there is some fantastic British talent on offer. Armitage gives an incredibly grounded central performance as Price and you fully believe and invest with his character right from the start. He has a strong on screen presence which lends considerable weight to his scenes. At the same time, he is able to be very unassuming when required, being quite believable as an average dad leading a normal life. Armitage shows his versatility in the role and it makes for a gripping watch.
Siobhan Finneran is also brilliant in The Stranger and delivers a great performance in every scene she is in. She is the perfect fit for the role, bringing the classic slightly grumpy and flippant behaviour one would expect from a TV Detective. However as events develop and her circumstances are altered, we are exposed to a more sensitive and vulnerable side to her. It is an effective character trait as it shows that she is flawed, again bringing in that relatability of her character.
Other impressive performances include Hannah John-Kamen, Shaun Dooley, Jennifer Saunders, Dervla Kirven, Antony Head and the always fantastic Stephen Rea. But the real surprise inclusion comes in the form of Paul Kaye. An actor who has improved considerably over the years, Kaye proves once again his talent in front of the camera. To delve into his character anymore runs the risk of giving stuff away, but needless to say he is excellent in his role as John Katz.
For the most part, The Stranger is a tense, hard-hitting drama but there are also some moments of humour dotted throughout. The jokes that Wess frequently makes and the outspoken nature of Doug Tripp and his son Mike are not only funny but highly authentic. In one sense, they use humour as a defense mechanism to either avoid or cope with their problems. In another, it identifies that life isn’t one continually serious affair and that there are moments of laughter as well.
The Stranger focuses on a large web of secrets and lies, and during the course of the eight episodes we learn of their origins and how they all link with one another. The structure is very clever as we learn answers at the same time the characters do, providing a decent level of mystery and intrigue.
There is an excellent pace and rhythm to The Stranger with a well struck balance between drama and action. It does lose its way a bit near the tail end of the season when it overloads the viewer with red herrings and plot twists, but the final revelation in the last episode is strong and shocking.
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The Stranger isn't without fault and some of the narrative threads are a little weak, but the well written characters, solid performances and high degree of tension and suspense result in an intriguing and thrilling watch.
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