How far would you go to keep a secret? That’s the central question posed in ITV’s dark new drama The Sister starring Russell Tovey and Amrita Acharia.
Warning: contains mild spoilers for episode one of ITV’s The Sister
When we first meet our anti hero Nathan (Russell Tovey) he’s in dire straits. Alone, in a dimly lit room, necking a bottle of vodka neat and ready to ingest a large handful of pills — things aren’t looking good until suddenly, a name he hears triggers an immediate, visceral reaction. The name is Elise (played by Simone Ashley), and the moment that halts Nathan’s suicide is a heart wrenching plea on the evening news from the missing Elise’s family. Mother and father sit to the left and right; in the centre, pleading for anyone who knows what happened to come forward is her sister – the sister.
This appeal for information about the mysterious disappearance of a beautiful, vivacious young woman who vanished one night after a New Year’s Eve party makes Nathan abort his plan to end his life. Then we take the first of many time leaps in this just-in-time-for-Halloween ITV thriller and fast forward seven years to Nathan, alone again, but this time in a very fancy suburban home, wearing (and drinking) burgundy. Things seem to have changed for the better but how?
Before you can even begin to surmise about Nathan’s past, it turns up at the door, in the form of a lank-haired Fagan-esque character called Bob (Bertie Carvel), whose bad posture is matched only by his bad timing. He rings the doorbell on a dark, wet night and informs Nathan that a swanky new development (hidden message about the ills of gentrifications alert!) threatens to unearth their not so deep, dark secret, the body of Elise. And with that Nathan’s fragile suburban bubble bursts and so begins our wincingly tense is-it-a-thriller-or-is-it-a-horror suspense fest.
The truth is, based on a watching of episode one of the four-parter (which runs over consecutive nights on ITV, starting Monday at 9pm with the finale this Thursday 29 October at 9pm), The Sister is a bit of both. The series, written by Neil Cross (he of Luther and Spooks fame) and inspired by his novel Burial merges classic thriller tropes – splintering violin music, dark nights, huddled rain-soaked strangers arriving at the door and no room with anything stronger than a five watt lightbulb with the tried and tested supernatural storylines (a CD with a hidden message arrives in the door) and one scene where an agitated Nathan drives to to the woodland area where the body is buried feels truly Hitchcockian.
But the most chilling and protracted scene in episode one is the one where Nathan, after seeking Elise’s big sister Holly out under the guise of wanting to buy a flat from her, asks her out on what can only be classified as the word’s worst first date.
It’s 2013, she’s dressed to kill, but has pre-loaded because she’s nervous, and is still crushed by the disappearance of her sister three years ago. When he arrives, he orders a margarita, and the bartender actually says “coming right up” which the writer should be fined for but let’s not let that distract us from the rest of the excruciating scene.
As the awkwardness intensifies, Holly, imbued by Dutch courage, opens herself up to Nathan about the loss of her sister. He sits there and plays dumb as we see flashbacks to the ill fated last night of Elise’s life.
“I don’t actually know how to say this…it’s a bit weird…three years ago I lost my little sister”, Holly confesses while Nathan sits there, feeling her pain, but letting her continue. Breaking down, she tells him about the tearful pep talk she had with her mum before meeting him. How can she even play at being happy with her sister gone? The entire scene, watching Nathan let Holly tell him what he already knows is deeply uncomfortable, and more horrific in a way that any ghostly recordings.
The weird thing is you can’t fully hate Nathan, because he’s clearly reliving the pain of that night too. Some of the empathy is down to the craftsmanship of Tovey, who has a hard to pinpoint appeal – he’s got a highly likeable face, wonderful ears, is enigmatic and so versatile you can’t even tell if he’s the villain or the victim.
As we move back and forth in time, more twists are revealed – what is Nathan’s game? What part did Bob, Nathan’s creepy frenemy with a phD in ghosts play in the death of Elise? Flashbacks are used to great effect in The Sister, and just like the jilting camera angles they make you feel uneasy throughout. The dialogue is sparse but loaded, and the show benefits from its excellent cast which it needs because let’s face it – dead girls, creepy men, a dark secret…there’s nothing groundbreaking here.
One pet peeve – and one that has been pointed out since the days of Sex and The City and again in the uber annoying Emily in Paris – Nathan works in a head-bashingly boring 9-5. Holly is a passionless real estate agent in a high street firm, and yet they live in an open plan architecturally designed home with perfectly placed plants in tasteful ceramic pots and sickeningly expense looking rugs – not quite what you’d imagine for a young married couple in average jobs but we’ll forgive that because everything else is so nicely judged.
Episode one ends on a knife edge – the ghost of Elise is clearly not going to let Nathan keep drinking Beaujolais and eating Marks & Spencer Dine In For 2 deals with her sister. But even who is haunting who isn’t clear – Nathan is culpable, yes, but what lead to Elise’s death? Was it an accident? And if so, why the cover up? When will Holly twig? And why, why would Nathan seek out, and marry the sister of a woman he had a hand in burying? We know Nathan is guilty of many things but the question that Bob screams at him as they pull Elise’s body from the car in the woods in the final scene is the one we all want the answer to, Nathan, “what did you do?”
The Sister starts Monday 26 October at 9pm on ITV, and airs every night until the finale of Thursday 29 October. You can watch episode on on ITV Hub now.