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Easy to get tied up in courtroom thriller's twists

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Sometimes, good lawyers keep bad people from getting what they really deserve.

In real life, as in movies and on TV, a lot of non-legal people have a problem with this.

Lawyers' rationale for doing what they do is summed up nicely by British barrister Will Burton, the central character (played by David Tennant) in the new PBS Masterpiece Mystery! thriller The Escape Artist:

"Everyone deserves a defence."

Which, of course, is a central tenet of legal systems in most civilized countries; that does not, however, prevent many outraged observers from wishing ill upon lawyers who use their courtroom skills to help criminals go free.


In The Escape Artist, a BBC import that premières Sunday at 9 p.m. on PBS, Will Burton is a lawyer who's very good at his job. He has never lost a case, and that unblemished record lands him atop a prestigious publication's poll of the U.K.'s top young criminal lawyers.

Still, he's a bit surprised when his bosses hand him a particularly tricky high-profile murder case. When Will asks why it hasn't been assigned to one of the firm's senior partners, the response is simple and direct:

"When you're chained to the bottom of a shark tank... you call for Houdini," says one of the higher-ups who has decided Will's the man for this sticky-wicket job.

The case involves an awkward, reclusive bird fancier named Liam Foyle (Toby Kebbell), who's accused of the brutal murder of a female medical student. All the evidence -- and there's plenty of it -- suggests Foyle is the killer, so Will is forced to search for loopholes and technicalities that might punch a hole in the Crown's seemingly airtight case.

Did we mention that Will Burton has never lost a case?

It isn't spoiling anything to say that Will continues to be great at his job; as events unfold beyond the walls of the courtroom, however, he finds himself forced, for the first time, to directly confront the consequences of doing a very good job of representing a very bad person.

The Escape Artist -- the title is drawn from the nickname Will's courtroom brilliance has earned him -- unfolds in a fairly measured fashion, but the deliberate pace is punctuated with enough twists and surprises to keep it riveting. And as is the case in all worth-their-salt thrillers, the tension is continually ratcheted upward as each new layer is added to the story.

It starts out as a fairly routine British courtroom drama, but The Escape Artist transforms itself into a breathtaking cat-and-mouse thriller and eventually becomes a morality play of the highest order. The script, written by David Wolstencroft (MI-5), is terrific, and Tennant's (Doctor Who, Broadchurch) inevitably excellent performance is matched by the contribution of Sophie Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda), who plays rival barrister Maggie Gardner, No. 2 on the aforementioned barristers poll, but willing to do anything -- anything -- to take over the top spot.

Kebbell is perfectly creepy in the role of accused killer Foyle, who seems throughout the story to be toying not just with the lawyers, but with the legal system itself.

It's a cracking good yarn, very well told, and its short (two-episode) duration makes it just the right kind of must-see fare for the time of year when time is best spent outdoors. Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 14, 2014 G9

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