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The Tourist review: BBC One’s Jamie Dornan drama is better as a black comedy than an action thriller

BBC One’s New Year’s Day drama comes from Harry and Jack Williams, creators of The Missing

Watching The Tourist, you get the sense that it maybe wasn’t marketed particularly well.

The six-part thriller is BBC One’s prestige New Year’s Day drama for 2022, debuting in the same slot occupied by shows like The Serpent, Dracula, and Luther in previous years. To all intents and purposes, it was pitched as quite a serious affair – images were released of Jamie Dornan all bearded and brooding, trailers emphasised the intense action that kicks the whole thing off, and the official synopsis described it as “a story of self-discovery with a ticking time-bomb underneath”, full of “shocking, surprising, and brutal turns”.

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It comes as a bit of a surprise then that the series is actually really, really funny.

The Tourist opens with Jamie Dornan’s character – left unnamed in the opening episode, only ever referred to as ‘the Man’ – driving across the Australian outback. He could just as easily be on holiday as in hiding, and there are few clues to who he is or what he’s doing before he’s run off the road entirely by a massive truck. The crash was intended to kill him but leaves him with amnesia instead; The Tourist follows Dornan’s character as he tries to work out who he was, why someone wanted to kill him, and why they’re still trying to too.

Rather than playing it straight, though, The Tourist is appreciably off-kilter instead – it has this wry comic sensibility throughout, much more recognisable as a black comedy than any kind of action thriller. Where the advertised intense drama looked dour (and more than a little generic), The Tourist takes on a much more distinct tone: it’s as much down to the frequent jokes and deadpan one-liners (“well, well, well” says Dornan’s character, after pushing someone down a well) as it is the atmosphere of understated absurdity that runs through the piece.

Helen (Danielle Macdonald) and Luci (Shalom Brune-Franklin) look at the Man (Jamie Dornan) in The Tourist (Credit: BBC/Two Brothers Pictures/Ian Routledge)

The Tourist is crafted with a real sense of precision – directors Chris Sweeney and Daniel Nettheim, who helmed three episodes each, do a really impressive job of maintaining that understated absurdity throughout. The Tourist is a very self-assured piece of television, one that feels like it was made with a very steady hand: all the different aspects of production, from the editing to the sound design, are working in tandem. It’s very much the sort of series that needs that sense of careful control – had any one aspect of The Tourist been out of step with the rest, it would’ve felt like an altogether more confused affair.

It’s particularly well-performed, too. Jamie Dornan is great as the Man, holding together the drama (he switches from withdrawn and contemplative to wild-eyed panic with aplomb) and rising to the comic demands of the piece nicely; Shalom Brune-Franklin gets a chance to show much more range here than in her recent Line of Duty role, making a strong impression as waitress Luci who forms a bond with the Man.

The heart of the show, though, is Danielle Macdonald. The Australian actress plays Helen Chambers, the anxious traffic warden assigned to help the Man after his car crash who soon gets drawn into the increasingly violent attempts on his life. Macdonald takes to the comedy really well – she pitches it perfectly, probably the member of the cast most acutely honed-in on the tone The Tourist needs – and she’s just a delight to watch, really, a properly fantastic screen presence.

Ultimately, then, The Tourist is a huge amount of fun. It’s a far cry from the dour and brooding drama it seemed to be, but that’s absolutely for the best – this irreverent dark comedy is a great way to start the year, well worth your time and a real breath of fresh air.

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