Martin Clunes Shines in Acorn TV's Tense, Smart 'Manhunt'

Martin Clunes as DCI Sutton (Photo: Acorn TV)
Martin Clunes as DCI Sutton (Photo: Acorn TV)

British TV fans are generally used to seeing actor Martin Clunes in comedic roles, on successful programs such as Doc Martin and Men Behaving Badly. He tackles his first leading role in a more serious drama with Manhunt, a tense, intelligent series about the dogged hunt for a killer who murdered multiple young women in the early 2000s. 

During its original U.K. airing, Manhunt was British network ITV’s biggest hit since the David Tennant-led drama Broadchurch back in 2013. The series has drawn comparisons to the megapopular BBC drama Bodyguard, though beyond being tense, dramatic stories about death, the two series could hardly be more different.

Whereas Bodyguard was a thrill ride of constant shocks, Manhunt tells the story of relentlessly regular people, doing the hard work of investigation in the aftermath of a gruesome crime. The story is based on the dedicated police effort that ultimately brought serial killer Levi Bellfield to justice, and it focuses heavily on assembling facts. There’s a lot of time spent on tracking nondescript vans and splicing together CCTV footage, rather than the more sensational sort of twists normally associated with dramas such as these.

Manhunt is possibly the most workmanlike of murder mysteries, and I mean that in the best way possible.

Martin Clunes as DCI Sutton (Photo: Acorn TV)
Martin Clunes as DCI Sutton (Photo: Acorn TV)

The bulk of the series is not focused on the sensational or frightening aspect of the crimes. In fact, for most of its three episodes, we’re only told the most basic details about what happened to the group of women whose deaths the Metropolitan Police suspect of being linked. Their stories are treated with reverence: There are few lingering shots on dead bodies, and a minor subplot is even focused on respectfully informing a grieving family of their loss.

Though we’re all quite used to seeing Clunes fire off sarcastic one-liners as the curmudgeonly Martin Ellingham in Doc Martin, he’s quietly powerful here as DCI Colin Sutton, a man in charge of his first major murder investigation who is as dedicated to his work as he is utterly ordinary. That isn’t an insult, by the way. There’s an everyday appeal to him that makes Sutton feel as though he could be – and that some version of him probably is – in any police force in the country, just keeping his head down and doing the work.

DCI Sutton isn’t a John Luther or a Sherlock Holmes. There’s no maverick genius in this story who suddenly solves crimes with a brilliant realization at the last minute. There’s simply regular, everyday police work that is perhaps unglamorous but certainly the stuff of real life. There’s no fortuitous brilliance, just a lot of video footage to watch, bureaucratic resistance to navigate and team personalities to manage.

The hard work of investigation (Photo: Acorn TV)
The hard work of investigation (Photo: Acorn TV) 

Manhunt isn’t perfect, however. It’s biggest flaw is likely its treatment of female characters – other than the girls whose deaths drive the plot there just aren’t that many of them. One member of Sutton’s investigative team is a woman, who is obviously capable, but you probably won’t remember her name from episode to episode. And Sutton’s wife seems to exist purely to give him conflict at home over how much attention he’s devoting to this case at the expense of his family.

It’s a story we’ve seen before, and Manhunt doesn’t do anything particularly new with it. (In fact, I’m not even sure that the show really resolves some of the issues it raises in this area, but let’s be real – it’s not the story most will be primarily interested in here anyway.)

But, on the whole, this three-episode drama is a quick, satisfying binge, and a must-see for fans of Clunes, who proves once again that he’s a surprisingly versatile performer.

Manhunt is available to stream on Acorn TV beginning Monday, March 11. Are you planning to give it a try?