By the end of the first three episodes of The Rook, a 2019 miniseries produced by Starz (of Spartacus: Blood And Sand notoriety), I found myself craving for something interesting to happen.
After an intriguing start, it hardly goes anywhere for quite a long time until it shifts gears and takes a couple of swerves in the fourth episode. And then the first batch of press screener episodes ran out.
That “intriguing start” sees principal character Myfanwy Thomas (Emma Greenwell) waking up near the Millennium Bridge in London surrounded by corpses that have been broken and/or mutilated to varying degrees.
She can’t remember anything, and flees the scene. Oddly combining elements from Total Recall and The Matrix, this first episode sketches a brief outline of the world in which The Rook is set.
Myfanwy (rhymes with “Tiffany”) is part of a secret branch of the British secret service known as the Checquy, which is staffed by operatives with paranormal abilities.
The Checquy (which means “chequered”, and rhymes with “sheck-ay”) is structured in a chess-like hierarchy, only the King is a woman (Joely Richardson’s Linda Farrier) and the Queen is a man (Adrian Lester’s Conrad Grantchester).
The operatives are known as EVAs, which stands for “extreme variant abilities”, which is another evasive way of saying “mutant”.
So poor amnesiac Myfanwy receives, through various channels, communiques from her pre-amnesiac self – in much the same way Arnold Schwarzenegger’s villainous former self left messages for his mind-wiped present self in Total Recall.
And in true Matrix-ian Morpheus fashion, past Myfanwy has left her present self a red key and a blue key (not pills) with essentially the same choices presented to Keanu Reeves’ pre-Neo Thomas Anderson.
So while Myfanwy tries to piece her memory back together, her colleagues are called in to investigate the gruesome murders, which bear all the hallmarks of an EVA at work.
Oh, it doesn’t take very long before the Checquy’s American sister agency, the BVA (I’m guessing the “B” stands for “blah”), sends operative Monica Reed (Olivia Munn) to help out.
Having Monica fumble about trying to get her Checquy counterparts to cooperate, while running a parallel investigation of her own, is actually one of the more interesting aspects of the series’ first half. Because Olivia Munn.
By far the most interesting of the supporting characters presented to us is the Rook Gestalt, one mind inhabiting four bodies – it’s a nicely realised character, with the different quarters finishing each other’s sentences, immediately knowing what another quarter has learnt, and simultaneously experiencing what any single component is feeling at the time.
Queen Grant comes in a close second, mainly for the less than ethical way he uses his power and the astonishing degree of suspicion with which he views every single one of his colleagues.
King Linda is mostly consigned to being the Basil Exposition of the show for a very long time, until we finally learn something halfway interesting about her in the fourth episode (and yeah, that’s when the screeners ran out).
The Rook, adapted by Sam Holcroft and Al Muriel from the novel of the same title by Australian author Daniel O’Malley, is really about Myfanwy, though. In her non-mind-wiped state, she is the Checquy’s other Rook (Yoda voice: always there are two) and, after all, the focus of the novel.
The series differs from the source, in the sense that book Myfanwy regarded her present self as a different person from the “real” Myfanwy. On the show, however, Myfanwy seems in quite a hurry to regain her memory and fit back into her old life.
Greenwell cuts quite a compelling and often sympathetic figure as the clueless central character, and the only thing that doesn’t quite ring true is the way a bureaucrat like her can just drop everything and drive across the country chasing leads on her past instead of being in her (rather nice) office rubberstamping documents and requisition forms.
So The Rook is not short of intriguing characters. Where it fails quite miserably is in giving them anything really interesting to do and in building a proper world for them to inhabit.
For the whole first half of the miniseries, there is really nothing substantial shown of the world in which the Checquy operates.
We see nothing of the cases it works on apart from the opening mass murder, and surely that can’t be all. Nor do we see the kind of threats and issues its agents face – apart from one facet of the government oversight to which they are subjected.
The actual thrust of the story does not even begin to come together until well into the third episode.
By then, all this paranoia, grim-faced sneaking about behind one another’s backs, and lengthy breaks between Olivia Munn scenes had pretty much worn out my attention span.
The Rook airs at 11pm every Saturday on Cinemax (Astro Ch 432).
All shadow play makes Rook a dull joy.
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