Darklands review: Enough energy, grit and quality, behind and in front of the camera, to potentially rival Love/Hate

The shadow of Love/Hate hangs long and dark over the Irish TV landscape – or perhaps we should say “streetscape”, given how quintessentially urban that drama was. This was a long way from the pastoral idyll of Glenroe, or even the relatively cosy suburban vibe of Fair City.

Love/Hate was nasty, bleak and violent, and the audience couldn’t get enough of it. So indelible were that show’s scorch-marks across the collective psyche, indeed, that any subsequent crime drama – whether TV or cinema – has inevitably been compared with Stuart Carolan’s opus (including his own follow-up, last year’s Taken Down).

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All of which is to apologise, in advance, to the makers of Darklands, the latest crime story from Virgin Media which aired the first of six episodes tonight. Set in a small satellite town of Dublin – Bray doing duties as a location for filming – it’s centred on the Dunne family, whose two older boys are chalk and cheese.

Sixteen-year-old Damien (Dane Whyte O’Hara) is a good kid: staying out of trouble, going steady with a girl and working hard on the MMA skills which he hopes will lead him and his family out of the poverty trap. Older brother Wesley (Damien Gildea), unfortunately, is pretty much the complete opposite.

He’s not a thoroughly bad guy, but he is seriously dodgy. Wes sees the drugs trade as his way out of penury, so he’s working for gangland brother-and-sister team, Butsy (Thommas Kane-Byrne) and Bernie (Judith Roddy). This pair really are bad: she comes across as a skanger Lady MacBeth, he’s like a sociopathic baby with a hair-trigger temper.

They, and Wes, are importing drugs into Ireland to curry favour with a Liverpudlian Mr Big. The deal goes terribly wrong, in a tragicomic sequence that feels plausible, given the numpties involved in real-life crime: the lookout nods off on heroin instead of keeping an eye out for the Guards.

Half-a-million worth of contraband is lost. Wes legs it. His dad’s van, which he’d foolishly brought along to transport the drugs, is impounded. And to top it all, he misses Damien’s big fight, which he’d promised to make.

By the end of Episode 1, Damien and pops are being arrested for involvement in crime: that van, traced back to their house. We know, from the blurb, that Wesley “goes missing” – which, in this milieu, could mean anything – and Damien is tempted into working for Butsy, while trying to keep secret his romance with the sister of a rival drug-dealer.

Darklands certainly has background credentials: director and co-writer Mark O’Connor, made the well-received features Between the Canals and Cardboard Gangsters, which addressed similar themes and played out in a similar unflinching style. The other writer, Adam Coates, is actually the brother of real-life gangster Shane Coates, murdered in 2006.

Taken purely as a piece of telly, it works reasonably well, although it must be said that budget limitations become fairly obvious during some scenes e.g. the Garda drugs bust. Nothing much can be done about that, I accept.

The script is tight and well structured, the set-up’s a good ‘un, and the cinematography is a nice mix of up-close “verité” and soaring drone shots of the town and the sea. The acting, while nothing exceptional, is decent across the board, especially from Kane-Byrne as the hateful Butsy: I haven’t wanted to simultaneously punch a character in the face and run away from them in terror for a long time. Which is about as hearty a thumbs-up as any actor can get for playing a villain.

In some ways, Darklands has an “it feels like we’ve been here before” sense to it – which is because, referring you back to Love/Hate we have. It’s not as good as that show, at least so far.

That said, Love/Hate took a while to really get into its stride. Darklands has enough energy, grit and quality, behind and in front of the camera, to give it the same chance.

Darklands continues on Virgin Media One next Monday at 9pm.

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