Was Connie Nielsen’s character pushed? Is her husband lying to her? The lead’s brilliant performances delivered the answers in the finale – although there was a clue in Eccleston’s barnet
Right on the money … Connie Nielsen as Jo. Photograph: © Channel Four Television Corporation
You set fire to a cat,” Jo’s father tells her. Frederik is lying in bed at a Hastings care home, recalling what his now middle-aged daughter got up to during her Danish childhood. But did she? In Close to Me (Channel 4), father and daughter are unreliable witnesses. He has Alzheimer’s and she a brain trauma which means she can’t remember the previous year of her life. “It was a toy cat,” she replies. Or was it?
In the finale to this adaptation of Amanda Reynolds’ bestselling psychological novel, it is hard to be sure about anything. I’m not even certain that Jo (Connie Nielsen) and Frederik (Henning Jensen) are speaking Danish. Perhaps, it is just vaguely plausible Scandinavian noise.
Jo isn’t sure if her husband, Rob (Christopher Eccleston), pushed her down the stairs, causing her memory loss. She isn’t sure if she put the moves on her ex-colleague or had a thing with her daughter’s boyfriend. Are her flashbacks reliable? And is the timeline her apparently devoted husband has put on the kitchen wall designed to help recover her memory? Or the latest document in that very British dramatic tradition of family secrets and lies?
But even someone as dull-witted as me knows one thing. The narrative was destined to coil back on itself for the denouement, to return to the primal scene at the top of the stairs down which Jo fell. Did she fall or was she pushed? Frankly, if you hadn’t guessed that by episode one, and I mean this in the kindest possible way, you need the kind of help TV critics aren’t trained to offer. One look at Christopher Eccleston’s hairdo – suspiciously dangling fringe at the front, weirdly hirsute blob at the back – told me everything I needed to know before the first ad break. He actually went into the barbers and asked for that? Guilty as charged in my book.
It took Jo six episodes to realise that, while she was depressed after losing a child and later because of the menopause, Rob had had an affair with his co-worker Anna. In this final episode, she recalls their argument the night of the fall. “I didn’t have to wait for her to get wet,” Rob snarled in self-justification. “Don’t you dare blame me for your wandering dick,” she replied, sensibly.
I appreciate that the drama used a rather schlocky device of a bop on the head that erases a wronged woman’s memory to explore serious themes of gaslighting and male violence. Also that it culminated in a justifiably feminist self-realisation beyond the heteronormative shackles of what family therapists call a rubbish marriage – but what I find totally unacceptable is Close to Me’s lighting bill. At one point, Jo, having fled hospital after another collapse, returns to the family home. As she wanders the sumptuous modernist house like Bluebeard’s wife in the marital castle (or like a Right Move video tour of a property in prime Sussex that would set you back – oooh – £2m plus), room after room is lit with decorous lamps. I counted 20. This is the real reason why energy companies are dropping like flies. Channel 4 drama set designers don’t realise that you actually have to pay those fuel bills.
But let’s not get distracted. Despite the storyline’s sillinesses and beguiling set design, I was most struck by the two Scandinavian leads. It was as if the mother and father from Bergman’s Wild Strawberries had been teleported into a remake of Andrea Newman’s Bouquet of Barbed Wire. Nielsen and Jensen’s unclamorous acting was a joy and a relief. And it needed to be right on the money because the climax pivoted on her realising that her father had beaten his unfaithful wife when she was a girl.
Recalling the long-buried memory of what she saw her father do to her mother is Proust-like in catalysing others, enabling her to remember truths long hidden. Not just what her dad did to her mum, but what her husband did to her. And to correct that kitchen timeline in red ink. “It was only once,” her dad says of what he did to Jo’s mum, deludedly even in this moment of lucidity. “Once is too often”, she replies. Absolutely. It is a simple moral, though hard won. We never did, though, get closure on what happened to that cat.