'The Cry': Jenna Coleman Stars in an Addictive, Intelligent Thriller

Jenna Coleman in "The Cry" (Photo: RLJ Media/Sundance)
Jenna Coleman in "The Cry" (Photo: RLJ Media/Sundance)

The general idea behind The Cry, a BBC drama that arrives in America by way of cable network Sundance and its streaming arm Sundance Now, is every parent's worst nightmare. A foreign country. A missing child. A mystery it seems no one can solve. And a devastated couple at its center. 

That in and of itself would probably be enough to sustain this four-part series, but The Cry is eager to prove that it's nothing like what you think it's going to be. This is a series that likes to play with viewer expectations - about who we should trust, which narrative we should believe, where we are in the timeline of the story we're watching, and who these characters are. There are shocks and aftershocks aplenty, and pretty much every time you think you've seen the most emotionally harrowing thing you can witness, well. Surprise. Here's a more painful place.

The Cry follows the story of Alistair and Joanna, a young couple with a new baby still struggling to adjust to the early days of parenthood. New mom Joanna is obviously struggling and getting little help. Her child won't stop crying, she's clearly suffering from some level of postpartum depression and she's becoming more and more isolated from the busy and vibrant life she used to live. Alistair, a successful PR rep with a busy job, doesn't do much by way of parenting duties and, what's worse, seems to have convinced his wife that the baby's basically her job, because he's the one that makes money. Again, all of this would also probably be enough to power a drama on its own. Here's a more painful place. Again. 

Jenna Coleman and Ewen Leslie in "The Cry" (Photo: RLJ Media/Sundance)
Jenna Coleman and Ewen Leslie in "The Cry" (Photo: RLJ Media/Sundance)

Told via three timelines woven together, The Cry constantly plays with our understanding of the characters and their relationships. We see the early days of Joanna and Alistair's relationship, as she finds out he's married and has a daugher. We see Alistair and Joanna, now parents of a newborn, on a long flight to Melbourne, where Alistair intends to reclaim Chloe, the now teenage daugher who left for Australia with her mother after her parents' marriage fell apart. And finally we see Joanna, back in Scotland, alone, and on trial for murder. What's happened, exactly? Well, that's the question The Cry wants you to figure out. And it's not going to help you much along the way.

Following their tense and lengthy flight to Australia - on which baby Noah cries the whole way, upsetting many of the other passengers - Joanna is at the end of her rope. The tension between her and her husband is near its breaking point, and the two of them look woefully unhappy. Of course, it is at this precise moment that their baby goes missing, vanishing from the carseat while his parents are buying necessaries at the local corner market. 

Joanna, already distant, glassy-eyed and struggling on her best day, is subsequently thrust into the media spotlight as an entire country decides to weigh in on her fitness as a parent, and what happened to her son. Is Joanna a victim to be pitied? A monster who probably offed her own kid? Something in between? These are the questions The Cry also asks us, as viewers, to wrestle with, and thanks to its convoluted narrative structure and a delicatley nuanced performance by Coleman you'll probably believe all of those things at different points before the show is over. 

As the pieces of the story slot together, there are several big revelations which change the way we feel about its characters, as well as our understanding of precisely what we've been watching. Some things are not entirely what they seem. And some are actually worse than we thought. It's deeply difficult to talk about this series in a way that doesn't spoil things - and trust me, you'll want to go in knowing as little as possible if you haven't read the book the show is based on - but just know that the fact that you feel very confused at the end of the first episode is definitely not weird, and things come into focus a lot more clearly in the second. 

The Cry is almost worth watching for Coleman's performance alone, which is complicated, impressive and endlessly watchable. Her Joanna is required to run a gamut of emotions from despair to rage to a sort of brittle emptiness that's heartbreaking in its stillness. At various points it feels as though she's playing three different people, only they're all versions of the same person laboring under varying levels of trauma. It's a very different sort of role from her previous turns on Victoria and Doctor Whoand it's nice to see Coleman get the chance to display her range here. Joanna isn't always sympathetic, but her character is deeply compelling, even when you're questioning her motivations. 

It does occasionally feel as though the series is purposefully packing all its twists into the ends of episodes to keep viewers coming back, but the show manages to shift and manipulate its focus enough that this trick isn't nearly as irritating as it probably ought to be. Instead, The Cry trusts its audience to keep up with it, which in an era of television that often feels the need to spoon feed story to its viewers in easily digestible chunks, that's quite the gift, indeed. 

The Cry is currently available to stream on Sundance's website and via Sundance Now.