The Singapore Grip review: An ambitious, subversive period drama that lacks bite

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The Singapore Grip starts as you would imagine a standard British period drama would, but then goes in a direction you probably wouldn’t expect.

Given the advertisements for the ambitious projects, you would be forgiven for thinking that this is a drama in the Downton Abbey mode, following a stiff-upper lip family in the British aristocracy as they fumble their way through a defining moment of the 20th Century.

And yes, sure, it certainly starts out that way – plopping us right in the middle of the action at the Fall of Singapore in 1942 at the height of World War II – but this is not the comfortable, rose-tinted homage to the British Empire you might think.

The Singapore Grip is, above all, a biting satire about the effects of British colonialism, told through the lens of one of the most embarrassing defeats we suffered during the Second World War, as the Empire of Japan invaded the stronghold of Singapore.

Adapted from the JG Farrell novel of the same name by Oscar-winning scribe Sir Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons), the drama starts in the thick of battle, as outlier Matthew Webb (Luke Treadaway) is caught in the midst of the Battle of Singapore, desperately searching for an un-named woman. We then track backwards, with Matthew’s arrival in Singapore as the son of a powerful aristocrat (Game of Throne’s Charles Dance), quickly caught in the machinations of the Blackett family, including ambitious father Walter (David Morrissey) and daughter Joan (Georgia Blizzard), who quickly makes it her mission to marry Matthew.

It’s a visceral, put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is opening, which is reminiscent, in fact, some some of the imagery of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Sam Mendes’ 1917, showing how well the filmmakers have researched how to frame and shoot a war drama.

The characters are great too; Georgia Blizzard in particular plays Joan with an amoral aplomb, happily riffing off classic film noir femme fatales like Rita Hayworth’s Gilda and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, with reliable baddie Charles Dance also bringing up the rear.

The very heart and centre of the drama, however, is Elizabeth Tan as the mysterious Vera Chiang, a nurse escaping from a troubled past who gets caught up in the action with Matthew. Vera is a complex and layered character, something that we feel reads as a direct commentary against the rash stereotyping of Asian women as ‘Other’ in period dramas, reduced down to nothing more than an Orientalist enigma that scholars have come to categorise as ‘the Dragon Lady.’

Vera is definitely not that, and Tan plays her with remarkable self-assuredness, she is most definitely the hero of this story in more ways than one.

But as delightful as it is to spot The Singapore Grip’s subversions, it’s also fair to say that beyond its first initial set-piece, things seem to settle far too quickly and the ensuing episodes tend to miss some much-needed bite.

Clocking in at nearly 600 pages, Farrell’s original work is a bit of a monster, so Sir Hampton deserves plaudits for wrestling and wrangling it to fit a standard six-part drama, even if you do hanker for some of that bombast and ambition you glimpsed in the show’s opening moments.

There’s also something to be said for a drama with such subversive, parodic bones to rely so heavily on a mainly all-white cast. Tan is the only non-white actor to take front and centre in the main cast, and although the story is set in Singapore, it is still told through a mainly white, upper-class lens.

A lesson, perhaps, that even though Farrell’s prose sought to attack and critique exactly what the British Empire meant, we still have some serious work to do to present the victims of imperialism as the main characters in their own stories.

It’s not much, of course, but it is a start, and that’s hopeful at the very least.

Verdict

The Singapore Grip aspires to be more than just your standard period drama fare, and it most certainly achieves that aim.

But as nice as reading its subversions and parody of the British aristocracy and the decline of the Empire, there’s some much-needed bite missing from the proceedings, the plot ambles along nicely enough but when it takes a war to inject some narrative decisiveness, you know it needs work.

That being said, the fact The Singapore Grip exists at all is to be celebrated – we need more dramas like this on TV, and although it doesn’t go un-noticed the majority of the cast (Tan aside) are white, the critiques at work here may just open the door for more diverse and dazzling period dramas, re-visiting history in a different kind of way, from a different point of view.

The Singapore Grip starts 13 September on ITV.

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