A beloved comic is enjoying breakfast with his wife and grandchildren when there's a knock at the door. It's the police, and they want to take him in for questioning. An allegation of rape has been made against him. Before they go into the interrogation room, one detective gushes to the comedian about how much she loves his work. She and her family watch reruns of his old sitcom every Christmas.
But first, let's backtrack a bit. It may be hard to really appreciate National Treasure, the four-part drama premiering on Hulu March 1 after an initial release on Channel 4 in the U.K., without having a little insight into the events, and men, that inspired it. Or so I thought.
The fictionalized sex crimes case against legendary comedian Paul Finchley (played by Robbie Coltrane, famous to American audiences as Hogwarts gamekeeper Hagrid in the Harry Potter films) draws heavily on Britain’s Operation Yewtree, in which prominent male celebrities, including glam rocker Gary Glitter and singer Rolf Harris, were found guilty of committing sex crimes against children. The late radio and TV personality Jimmy Savile, who died a year before the 2012 investigation began, was ultimately linked to hundreds of allegations of rape and child sexual abuse, and is the name most commonly associated with Yewtree.
National Treasure heavily references the Savile case, which made me wonder if American audiences not familiar with Operation Yewtree would understand the context of the “popular celebrity is accused of sexual assault” storyline. A conversation with an American colleague, however, suggests otherwise.
“So, the British Bill Cosby?” she summed up when I explained the show’s premise.
Of course, Cosby — who made the news again on Friday when one of the women accusing him of sexual assault saw her defamation lawsuit against him dismissed — has not yet been found guilty in a court of law. Similarly, Coltrane’s Finchley's culpability in the charges made against him — the rape of a female fan on a film set two decades prior, statutory rape of his now-grown daughter’s underage babysitter — is murky until the final moments of episode 4. Did Finchley, an admitted adulterer, actually commit these crimes? As the program notes, Operation Yewtree has also investigated famous men who were later found not guilty in court. Is it possible Finchley is simply the victim of a witchhunt?
We won’t spoil the “did he do it or not?” revelation that eventually comes. What the show really grapples with is how Finchley's loved ones react to the allegations. As his no-nonsense wife Marie, Julie Walters is quick to adopt the British stiff upper lip; she swats away at the charges like one might a fly who's hovering over their soup. She's annoyed by the situation and its disruption of her life, but her knee-jerk reaction is to support her husband unconditionally, even when he comes home from a tryst with a sex worker.
Marie and Paul's daughter, Dee (Andrea Riseborough, who continues to steal every scene she's ever been in), isn't so sure. Dee is messy. She's split from her partner, who has custody of their two children while she seeks treatment for substance abuse. Her bleached, stringy blonde hair makes her look like she's just emerged from a hair-pulling contest. She counts to six to soothe her nerves, but isn't immune to violently lashing out. She's the apple of he famous father's eye, but she's not quick to defend him at first.
You can see the wheels turning. It's probably not the first time Dee has wondered if her personal problems are a symptom of her upbringing, but the cruel nature of these crimes gives these thoughts a new intensity. If her father did indeed have sex with her 15-year-old babysitter all those years ago, could he have violated her as well? Has she buried any memories of molestation? And yet, if he did act inappropriately with this babysitter, now a grown woman in her 40s, why is that woman still Facebook friends with Dee? Like we said, it's murky.
"Everyone wants to be a victim these days," a dismissive Marie tells her daughter when she gives voice to these doubts. She sees Dee's wavering as an indulgence, and Dee reacts in a predictably unstable manner.
Ultimately, compellingly, those nigglings of doubt don't really seem to make a difference. New information comes to light, and while Marie and Dee process it all internally in their own ways, their actions with regard to Paul's trial never switch gears. Outwardly, they're stoic. Inwardly, they're trembling.
If you've ever wondered how a wife or daughter or girlfriend can stand by and support someone accused of the most heinous of crimes, National Treasure might offer some answers, but no easy solutions.