The news has been plagued with stories of sexual abuse and its devastating aftermath which have come to light since attention was directed towards #MeToo and the seedy culture of exploitation that has long rumbled beneath the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. Nevertheless, it remains incredibly hard to put into words what that reality must be like. BBC One’s new drama Dark Money has arrived to try and shed a stark, heartbreaking light on it through one fictional story that every now and again echoes with an upsetting familiarity.
The four-part series tells the story of a 13-year-old boy called Isaac Mensah (Max Fincham). He and his family – older sister Jess (Olive Gray), half brother Tyrone, mum Sam (Jill Halfpenny) and dad Manny (Babou Ceesay) – live in London. Isaac lands a part in a huge Hollywood blockbuster and, while filming over there, is abused by one of the producers. Through difficult flashbacks and painful recounting of what happened while Isaac was in the care of an agency handler in the States, the audience is given an insight into what renowned producer Jotham Starr (John Schwab) did to him.
Layered on top of what Isaac went through is a tricky story about how his parents have handled the incident on their son’s behalf. When Isaac gets home and tells Sam and Manny what happened, he says he doesn’t want anyone to know. They seek legal counsel, only to be told that there’s nothing that can really be done in the UK. Should they want to press charges, it would involve prosecuting in America and putting Isaac in court to recount his story in front of a defence team whose only aim would be to prove him wrong and to frame him as a liar. It would cost the Mensah family far more money than they’re currently struggling to get by on and the length of the process is far from encouraging. They find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place – do they take on one of the most powerful forces in Hollywood who has an intimidating expert team of legal advisors to protect him and try to bring him to justice on their own, or do they sit quietly and hope to move past the unimaginable?
A few more steps are taken. They take their son’s accusations – and a video recording on his phone that evidences Jotham entering his trailer – to the handler who had been looking after Isaac during filming. She takes it to Jotham’s representatives and soon after, Manny and Sam are invited to a meeting with them. Depressingly, though unsurprisingly, when Jotham’s legal team watch the video they say that it doesn’t count for anything. Even though you can hear Isaac pleading with Jotham not to make him do anything, they say the camera doesn’t capture any concrete visuals. Isaac's parents are then given an offer: sign a non-disclosure agreement and take a £3 million cheque to keep quiet. They’re told that the offer expires in five minutes – and so they agree to take it.
The money might be in the bank and they might have agreed not to discuss it further, but of course the trauma doesn’t magically stop there. The family moves into a flash new house with a swimming pool but Isaac continues to suffer and struggles to escape the memory of what happened. This isn’t helped by the fact that his abuser hasn’t faced any repercussions, the psychology of which resonates in a couple of piercing incidents involving Isaac and a young girl in later episodes.
As you watch the narrative play out, you’re torn by frustration at everything that has happened and at everyone involved. When Isaac’s parents sign the NDA they’re assured that the production company would see to it that Isaac and Jotham wouldn’t cross paths, and yet they’re forced to stand together for photos at the film premiere. Isaac’s flinch as Jotham puts his hand on his shoulder for the cameras is unbearable and you’ll find yourself willing someone, anyone, to do something about it. But needless to say, the suffocation felt watching from the other side of a television screen doesn't compare to the overwhelming helplessness felt by those who have suffered the reality of what Dark Money sheds a tense but limited light on.
We know from the stories that some have been brave enough to share with the public in the last few years that it doesn't always happen this way. We can infer that the almost-tragic events that spiral within the Mensah family can't necessarily speak to the experiences of the unspeakable number of people whose stories might partially align with them. It's a painful but important realisation to face, though. Because while this miniseries is uncomfortably pertinent considering the continuing roll of reports about historic abuse in the real world, we can't help but secretly hope for a resolution at the end of a TV series. We can't help but hope for a blockbuster-style happily-ever-after when we watch something on screen, no matter how devastating the reality might be. And though we're yet to see how the final episode wraps up Isaac's fictional story, there's no real plausible way that anyone will be able to get closure from the ending. And perhaps that's the point.
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.
The final episode of Dark Money airs on BBC One on Tuesday 16th July at 9pm and the entire series will be available on BBC iPlayer.