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Rowan Atkinson in the Drama 'Maigret'
March 1, 2018  | By David Hinckley

You’d think that watching British comedian Rowan Atkinson (top) in a role where he doesn’t crack a smile for two hours would be like watching Amy Schumer play Lady Macbeth.

It doesn’t work that way, though, in the reincarnation of Maigret, a 2016 British production that had its American premiere Wednesday (February 28) on the streaming service BritBox.

Atkinson plays Jules Maigret, a chief police inspector in 1950s France. It’s a role that immediately plunges him into crimes so disturbing there’s no room for the slightest wry aside.

Michael Gambon played Maigret years ago in an earlier adaption of the series, which is based on books by Georges Simenon. Gambon has a more serious brand if you will, and his memorable portrayal makes it all the more impressive that Atkinson can so effortlessly take over a character who is contemplative, pipe-smoking and almost brooding.

For those who would like to revisit the Gambon episodes, incidentally, BritBox also released those 1992 productions on Wednesday.

It’s a case where two actors handle the same role with slight differences and equal competence.

In Atkinson’s case, his comic persona has often been understated and slightly mysterious, rather than loud, and he follows the same path with Maigret.

No matter how much pressure he’s under, he never shows undue emotion or offers one more word than necessary.

As this Maigret mystery begins, Montmartre has been terrorized by a serial killer who, over several months, has killed five women.

Each was walking home after dark, through parts of town that seem to have lots of narrow alleys and often a remarkable lack of other people on the street.

With each new killing, Maigret comes under intensified pressure from his boss Minister Morel (Rufus Wright) to capture this perp. Finally, half in desperation, Maigret decides he will try to bait the killer by sending multiple women out one night and stationing enough plainclothes officers nearby that when the killer tries to strike, someone will be close enough to apprehend him.

The high-risk plan does have one benefit for viewers. Writer Stewart Harcourt very smartly has not let us see the killer to this point, leaving viewers as perplexed and off-balance as Maigret.

Only after the plan is enacted do we finally see a suspect, Marcel Moncin (David Dawson). And his mother Madame Moncin (Fiona Shaw). And his wife Yvonne (Rebecca Night). Who did or didn’t do what remains a mystery.

Meanwhile, we do get glimpses of Maigret’s home life with his wife Madame Maigret (Lucy Cohu, right). He’s more human and even a bit relaxed with her, though there will be no smiles while a homicidal maniac is running loose in his district.

Maigret fits sturdily into the ranks of mystery novel series that have been made into two-hour stand-alone TV movies. This revival included two movies, which were successful enough in the U.K. that two more were commissioned and aired there last year.  

Atkinson himself does Maigret well enough so that a newcomer might be surprised to know he does comedy, too.
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