tv review

McMafia Is Just Okay

James Norton as Alex Godman in McMafia.

The opening credits of the crime drama McMafia tell you what you’re in for. They also tell you what’s most compelling about the series: its ability to communicate complex systems in a straightforward manner. Animated spreadsheets, graphs, pie charts, and maps are laid atop images of on-the-ground criminal activities, including the bribery of public officials, car-bombed vehicles burning, and sex-trafficked women being pushed into the back of an unmarked van. Mouse clicks transfer laundered money from point A to B to C to D and beyond, obscuring its origins. A flock of rifle shells turn upright and glom together to form a jigsaw puzzle-like map of the world, and the title of the series appears at the center of the image, translating itself from English into Russian, Israeli, Arabic, and other languages. This is the truer, deeper subject of this show, as described in its source material, Misha Glenny’s 2008 book McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworldthe so-called “Global Shadow Economy,” which builds international criminal franchises that are as ruthless as any legal corporation and more powerful than all but a handful of national governments.

This would’ve made a terrific subject for a documentary feature, or perhaps an episode of a nonfiction anthology series like Netflix’s Dirty Money, which covered some of the same subject matter in the episode titled “Cartel Bank,” about HSBC’s willingness to launder drug money. This one is a dramatic series, originally produced for the BBC and premiering on AMC Monday night, about a Russia-originated but now London-based crime family, co-created by Hossein Amini (screewriter of 1997’s Wings of the Dove) and James Watkins (director of The Woman in Black and Eden Lake). While it wouldn’t be quite right to say that the gangster violence and double-crosses are the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down, it feels that way at times. As an information delivery device, it’s effective. I learned a lot from watching it. Unfortunately, as a crime drama, McMafia is not hugely different from the bleak gangster epics that followed The Godfather into cinemas and The Sopranos onto TVand were plainly influenced by how they put ironic or ghastly frames around marriage, parenting, office politics, and other ordinary human activities. It’s not terrible, not great, just okay: better acted than directed, better directed than written, and generally a bit cooler and more generic than it needed to be in order to stand out in a medium that already has more violent antiheroes than it can handle.

The main cast includes an aging patriarch (Aleksey Serebryakov’s Dimitri Godman) who is depressed by his expulsion from his home country and a recent personal catastrophe and withdraws from the world, alienating his loyal wife Oksana (Maria Shukshina) by taking a mistress. There’s a Sonny Corleone type in Dimitri’s brother Boris (David Dencik), a life-of-the-party macho man who likes to get his hands dirty. There’s a loyal son, Alex Godson (James Norton), who went to an Ivy League school (Harvard no less) but has to abandon any pretense of legitimacy and shore up his father’s wobbly empire. There’s a bitter rival, Merab Ninidze’s Moscow-based Vadim Kalyagin, who chased Dimitri out of Russia and wants to kill any competitors that he can’t thwart by other means. There’s even a Hyman Roth-like crafty Jew (David Straithairn’s crooked Israeli businessman, Kleiman) whose outwardly harmless demeanor hides his Machiavellian gifts. (The Godson family is also Jewish, a detail that feels tossed-off at first.) Around these dynamic men orbit an array of women who are mostly shut out of the fists-and-guns-and-daggers-and-bombs part of the action, but who manage to make their influence felt in other ways, including Sofia Lebedeva as Lyudmilla Nikolayeva, a beauty therapist who gets abducted in Egypt and sold off to Kleiman, who uses her not as a sex slave but as a devious platonic social companion for rich men Kleiman wants to manipulate. She plays up her seeming naivete and lack of business knowledge to trick her dates into spilling details that her boss can leverage while negotiating. In the Kay Corleone role of Alex’s girlfriend Rebecca, Juliet Rylance makes less of an impression, though to be fair, not even Diane Keaton could save it the first time.

The pilot lays out the glass house that is the Godson’s hyper-privileged universe, then fastballs a rock through the front window. The rest of the series finds Alex halfheartedly trying to evade his destiny, then embracing it to perpetuate the family and punish those who’ve wronged it. He keeps getting approached by other international criminal types, starting with Kleiman, and asked to support their power moves against mutual enemies. Alex protests that he has nothing to do with the blood-and-guts part of the family fortune and is just a suit moving money around, but everyone knows it’s not true because his family was never that legit, and because any man related to Dimitri and Boris must have a least a bit of their killer DNA.

The tale moves more or less in the direction that you expect (and probably want, if you’re a fan of gangster films). But the background details are consistently more surprising than the characters and situations that illustrate them. You might even find yourself tuning out during the more typical moments, such as a horrifying home invasion that spirals into nightmare territory, and a sequence that cross-cuts between an attempted suicide and a murder that’s being disguised as a suicide.

Amini and Watkins deserve credit for clarity of expression. There was never a moment where the complex financial shenanigans confused me, despite the array of countries visited and languages spoken, and the scripts somehow pull off the tough trick of verbally explaining things (to make extra-sure everyone in the audience is up to speed) without making McMafia feel like a Wikipedia entry come to life. There’s not a bum performance to be found anywhere in the cast, though Norton’s borderline blank-slate approach robs the series of a dynamic center, and might have been a tactical mistake in retrospect.
Straithairn wins best-in-show handily, despite his unconvincing accent, because he seems overjoyed by the chance to portray a wily old coot, rather than another of his usual salt-of-the-earth types, and his enthusiasm informs the character, who seems more like an absentminded philosophy professor than a secret Meyer Lansky. The scene where he explains some of the ritualized tells of a negotiation is gangster movie slyness, even though, like so much of McMafia, it’s ultimately more exciting to think about later than it is to watch.

McMafia Is Just Okay