A British-French remake of the Scandinavian series The Bridge (which was also remade for the U.S.), The Tunnel rigorously preserves the compelling premise of a bisected corpse that’s found on a border separating two countries, coming to embody the class tensions between intersecting cultures. In this version, the Channel Tunnel fulfills a bridge’s functions as the location of the incident, as controversial French politician Marie Villaneuve is found in the exact midpoint of the structure separating Britain from France. French detective Elise Wassermann (Clémence Poésy) claims jurisdiction over the crime, which British detective Karl Roebuck (Stephen Dillane) is happy to honor, but there’s a ghoulish complication: Only the top half of the body belongs to Villaneuve. The bottom half belongs to a British prostitute who’s tied to a litany of shady characters in the U.K.
As in the other versions of the story, the primary appeal of The Tunnel resides in the grimly absurdist working relationship forged between the protagonists. Elise is a perceptive workaholic who’s so inflexible, humorless, and literal-minded that she suggests someone suffering from Asperger’s syndrome, while Karl is a genial hail-fellow-well-met type with a shrewd gift for accommodation that serves his own interests as well as the greater crime-solving good. Poésy and Dillane sharply underplay this odd-couple shtick, informing their characters’ rapport with subtly sexual poignancy, but there ultimately isn’t enough of a human element in The Tunnel.
Though The Tunnel is promisingly billed as the first series in British and French television to be bilingual, an examination of the bureaucratic bodies of two countries is often given short shrift. There are too many sequences with periphery characters who’ll obviously factor in the machinations of a super-villain who is, of course, only beginning his nefarious scheme. The murders of a politician and a prostitute, respectively, serve as a juxtaposition that’s intended as a form of social protest, underlining the callous and hypocritically distinctive fashions with which people regard the deaths of victims on opposing poles of privilege and respectability, but this m.o. is old hat as far as bad-guy statements go. These convolutions may be less of an issue to people unfamiliar with either version of The Bridge, but for veterans there hasn’t been enough effort expended here to adapt the story to the particulars of Britain and France, despite the occasional cheeky reference to the former’s perilous relationship with the European Union, or to immigrant backlash that should prove viscerally familiar to Americans.
By contrast, the American Bridge avoided crime-genre ennui with a palpably feral and erotic sense of place and atmosphere, while The Tunnel often traffics in generic ashy colors that seem to distinguish nearly every British crime series. This renders most of the alternatingly posh and dilapidated sets essentially the same, often suggesting an EveryShow that’s lousy with lurid developments that pile on top of one another, cumulatively not mattering. The Tunnel is crisply staged, well-acted, but only mildly diverting. It’s hard to shake the sensation that we’ve been here too many times before, and often to greater effect.