McMafia: a rollicking adventure with a message

DVD of the week: McMafiaCrime drama McMafia is a rollicing adventure that makes some good points about the extent to which dirty money has corrupted governments around the world.

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James Norton playing Alex Godman: impressively stoic
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With Russian oligarchs under scrutiny more than ever, the BBC series McMafia, which was screened at the start of the year, and is now on DVD, is timelier than even its producers could have imagined. It tells the story of Alex Godman (played by James Norton) and his family. The son of a Russian oligarch forced to seek exile in London, Alex is a successful hedge-fund manager scrupulously avoiding even the smallest connection with dirty money, or the country where he was born. But when his uncle Boris's attempt to drag him into the family business backfires, Alex ditches his scruples in pursuit of the crime lord who threatens him and his family.

What follows is an epic journey that involves everyone from Arab human traffickers to Russian mobsters. Norton is impressively stoic, betraying little emotion as he grows from nave banker to confident powerbroker. The other major players also give compelling performances, especially Merab Ninidze as Vadim Kalyagin, Alex's nemesis, and David Strathairn as his sometime ally Semiyon Kleiman. One of the strengths of the series is that we see the paternal side of Vadim, as well as his psychopathic tendencies. The production values are superb and a lot of money was clearly spent making it look stunning. Nowhere is this more evident than in the parts that take place outside of Britain. For example, the Indian slums are filled with dust and rubbish, Tel Aviv is oppressively sunny, while Moscow has an eerie glow, thereby giving each location its own distinct character.

As well as being a rollicking adventure, McMafia also makes some good points about the extent to which dirty money has corrupted governments around the world. Nowhere is this clearer than in Russia, where it's impossible to tell where the difference between the government and the mafia lies. At the same time, writers Hossein Amini and James Watkins, who adapted Misha Glenny's 2008 book, are unafraid to cast a critical eye closer to home, making the point that our uncritical acceptance of money from dubious sources has encouraged many criminals to make London their base of operations.

The one main weakness of the series is that it tries to compress too much into the allotted time, as characters appear and disappear before we get a chance to get to know them properly. At the same time, the producers have succumbed to the temptation to introduce several action set-pieces, such as a heroin heist and a chase through the Moscow metro, which are both more suited to an action film than a serious drama. The ending is also a little bit too clever. Still, we look forward to a second series.

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