Nowhere else works like the Cities. Beszel and Ul Qoma: Two cities that occupy the same space but are totally separate entities. The locals are brought up to unsee the other city, to actively place it into your peripheral vision so as not to observe what is happening right next to you, but there are places where the two cities intersect, where lines blur and it becomes complicated to work out what should and should not be observed. Between the authorities of these two cities there is another controlling force: Breach. A mysterious, faceless agency that is always watching for any incidents that require them to act. They could be anyone and anywhere.
In The City and The City, Inspector Tyador Borlu (David Morrissey) of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad is investigating the death of a young, Ul Qoma based foreign student, Mahalia Geary (Andrea Deck), who is discovered in an area close to the border between the two cities. Borlu and Officer Corwi (Mandeep Dhillon) find themselves deeply involved not just in this case, which will require some cooperation between the cities, but in something much larger and far reaching altogether.
As it happens Inspector Borlu has previous with Breach, his wife Katrynia (Lara Pulver) disappeared years ago after working with the academic David Bowden (Christian Camargo) who specialises in Orsony, a theorised, utopian third city that exists between Beszel and Ul Qoma. Katrynia’s relationship with Bowden, her deep interest in Orsony and her subsequent disappearance have led Borlu to hold grudges against Bowden but also not knowing for sure the fate of his wife has left him desperate to solve this new crime, involving similar faces, similar trajectories and life-choices. Is this Borlu’s chance to solve this crime and uncover the historic mystery that haunts him so?
David Morrissey plays the grizzled inspector, with issues, very well. He is a real presence on screen and is central to a large majority of the scenes. He’s a thorn in the sides of people in power and authority, forgoing the rules at times in order to get the answers he needs. Mandeep Dhillon is slightly over the top as the very sweary Officer Corwi but a useful peppering of colourful language spices things up from time to time and she provides a useful ally to tether Borlu back to his Beszel roots and the real task at hand when things get more complicated.
The supporting cast are involved in varying measures, none taking up significantly more screen time than the others. Moving through the story, these characters come and go to various degrees but they all play their part in developing the plot and moving the investigation on, or giving it further context or intrigue. When in Ul Qoma Inspector Borlu’s chaperone, Quissima Dhatt (Maria Schrader), does really well to highlight the differences not only in technology and lifestyle but in the way the authorities work, being much more regimented and by the book.
This BBC mini-series has been adapted, from China Miéville’s 2009 novel The City and The City, by Tony Grisoni and he manages to cut the novel down into four, hour-long episodes without losing too much in content or understanding. As with most novel to screen adaptations there are things that need to be cut out but you still get a good sense from this adaptation of what life is like on both sides of the border, the stresses and strains that this type of living puts on everyone and also how the outside world looks upon this strange place.
Tom Shankland’s direction works well to bring the cities’ issues to the screen but also in the creation of the distinct cities, making them easy to identify (and unsee if needs be). Utilising blur to show that the other city is there but is not to be seen properly, it also brings to mind the way that the populace are trained to not focus on the other city, and further into the story the border between the cities itself begins to blur and everything becomes more intertwined and complicated.
The differences between the cities are really well handled with Beszel designed to look rundown with an old Eastern Bloc feel whereas Ul Qoma is shiny and high tech, a thoroughly modern looking city. The cars and the dress sense follow suit to give a very distinctive feel to each individual city and the use of an invented language for the Ul Qomans gave it a completely alien feel to that of the down to earth Beszel. Having the cast learn and speak their lines with this newly created language alongside the use of mainly foreign actors ensures that the two cities provides completely different atmospheres and experiences, giving them a definite division of culture in this shared location.
The City and The City is probably China Miéville’s most accessible novel, or at least the closest to mainstream fiction. It reads like a crime thriller but with fantasy/weird elements to differentiate it. That feel of a crime series is evident throughout, even as the strangeness is being investigated and playing out on the screen.
The BBC’s imagining of the way the cities look and feel and, more importantly the way they handle the border issues are accomplished really well. If you enjoy a good crime investigation but also like something a little bit different then you should definitely give this a try.
The City and the City is now available on BBC iPlayer.