Well it had to happen. After getting some great entertainment from Criminal Justice I, I decided to watch Criminal Justice II even though some of the reviews weren’t quite as glowing. This is a 5-episode made-for-British television series released on a 2-DVD set.
Criminal Justice II begins with a prominent barrister Joe Miller (Matthew Macfadyen) nailing a murder conviction in court. With the case over, he meticulously stores his wig and gown, goes for a stress-releasing jog and then returns home to his family–wife Juliet (Maxine Peake) and 13-year-old daughter Ella (Alice Sykes). The film does an excellent job of setting up ambiguity through these initial scenes. Joe attempts to call his wife several times on his cell phone and then a very harried, flustered Juliet dashes in the house only to miss the call. She takes a speedy shower and then cleans up (or tries to) all evidence of this. Does Joe call to tell Juliet of his success or is something else sinister afoot? What is Juliet afraid of? What is she trying to cover up?
And then there’s the Miller house. It’s immaculate–blacks and whites like some sort of designer home from a magazine, but there’s also a sterility to it. This could be a lab for all the lifeless within these walls.
The evening ends with Joe stabbed and rushed off to the hospital while a bloodstained Juliet wanders the streets, eventually ending up at the emergency room too. She’s arrested and taken off for questioning. It looks like an easy conviction with no real doubt that Juliet was responsible for stabbing her husband. The big question is why?
Criminal Justice II is strongest in its depiction of the relationships between the characters involved in the case. There’s Anna Klein (Zoe Telford), the defending barrister who is backed up by Juliet’s intelligent, sympathetic, savvy, solicitor, Jackie Woolf (Sophie Okonedo). Detective Chief Inspector Faber (Denis Lawson) finds himself troubled about the case–in spite of the overwhelming evidence against Juliet, and married detectives Chris and Flo Sexton (Steven MacKintosh and Kate Hardie) find themselves on opposite sides of the moral divide as the case stretches out. Then there’s Ella who is left with no parents, but she does have a godfather Saul (Eddie Marsan) whose idolisation of Joe is a bit unhealthy. Dedicated social worker, Norma (Nadine Marshall) frequently oversteps her bounds and is accused of being “too involved,” as she becomes bound up in Ella’s fate.
Criminal Justice II, while ostensibly a police case, is much more about the muddy morality surrounding the crime, and it’s an emotional issue that ripples out to everyone involved and creates strong feelings on all sides of the fence. Juliet used to be an outgoing, happy person, but now she’s a neurotic, pill-popping mess. Was Joe a devoted, caring husband, or was he a control freak who robbed Juliet of her identity?
Criminal Justice II is at its weakest in the case itself. As the court date approaches, no one has asked Juliet WHY she did what she did, and then it seems to suddenly occur to Klein and Woolf that there’s no “story” for the courtroom. At that point, the pressure builds, but it seems a little forced when the story eventually trickles out as part of the courtroom drama. It’s all so well-acted and well-cast, however, that it’s still very entertaining in spite of its flaws. Some moments carry a powerful resonance. Juliet, at one point, for example, expresses the opinion that she wishes that Joe had hit her as physical violence would have been irrefutable proof that he was an abuser while mental abuse is so much more elusive, difficult to prove, and hard to understand.