TV Review: The Rook is a gripping paranormal spy thriller

Mel Campbell

Adapted from a novel by Australian Daniel O'Malley, this series is compelling but lacks the book's complexity.
TV Review: The Rook is a gripping paranormal spy thriller

Image: Amnesiac Myfanwy (Emma Greenwell). Watch The Rook now only on Stan

A woman (Emma Greenwell) wakes in the rain at the Millennium Bridge in London, surrounded by a circle of dead bodies wearing latex gloves. She has no idea how she got there, or who she is… but a letter in her pocket offers two options. She can start a new life with a new identity, or seek answers by masquerading as the person she once was.

She chooses option B, stepping back into the life of Myfanwy (“rhymes with Tiffany”) Thomas, a high-ranking official in the Checquy: a UK government secret service that employs – and monitors – people with “extreme variant abilities” or EVAs. In other words, superpowers. Aided by notes and video messages from her former self, Myfanwy strives to excavate her past and explain her present without raising the suspicions of her longtime colleagues, whom she’s been warned not to trust. And as she searches for answers, people keep attacking her…

ADVERTISEMENT

Stan’s eight-episode thriller series The Rook is adapted from an urban-fantasy novel by Australian author Daniel O’Malley. Despite the book’s quirky conceit of a superpowered spy agency ranked like chess pieces, the TV version is played with the straightest of bats. Its chilly, elegant cinematography, paranoid plotlines and repressed characters with hidden agendas keep the action grounded in the real world – which should appeal to fans of UK procedural shows such as Spooks.

Indeed, Spooks creator and The Night Manager executive producer Stephen Garrett has an EP credit here. Twilight’s Stephenie Meyer was also attached to produce, but left the project last year. Replacement showrunners Karyn Usher and Lisa Zwerling have assembled some excitingly diverse talent: of the four episodes made available to critics, the first two are directed by Kari Skogland (The Handmaid’s Tale), the third by China Moo-Young (Humans, Harlots) and the fourth by Sunu Gonera (Madam Secretary).

The pleasures of this adaptation lie largely in disentangling its plot along with its amnesiac heroine – and I did find it very gripping. Greenwell is compelling and sympathetic as she discovers her capabilities are far stronger than everyone believes of the old Myfanwy, who seems to have been dismissed as a mousy pencil-pusher. Recruited as a teenager, she failed to harness her EVA and is now a Rook: an administrator with mere organisational powers.

Unlike the low-ranking agents, the Pawns, she’s a member of the Checquy’s Court, which is headed by her mentor Linda Farrier (Joely Richardson). But the second in command, the resentful, ambitious Conrad Grantchester (Adrian Lester), appears to be undermining Linda’s authority. (The TV show frustratingly fails to come to grips with the book’s system of Lords, Ladies, Bishops and Chevaliers, let alone the other subtleties of the Checquy’s silos of power.)

Complicating these internal politics is Monica Reed (Olivia Munn), who works for the Checquy’s American counterpart agency and shows up in London, wanting to collaborate on the Millennium Bridge murder case. Politely diverted to the admin department, Monica is determined to investigate. With unexpected help from Myfanwy’s no-nonsense Pawn, Ingrid (Ruth Madeley), she learns that people with EVAs are being trafficked by a nefarious gang called the Vultures, and seeks to intervene in a covert slave auction.

One of the show’s most fascinating characters is Myfanwy’s fellow Rook, the platinum-haired Gestalt. A single consciousness shared between four bodies – fraternal twins Robert (Ronan Raftery) and Eliza (Catherine Steadman), and identical twins Alex and Teddy (Jon Fletcher) – Gestalt have an ambiguous interest in Myfanwy that’s weirdly sexual and possibly political. She’s forever on her guard as one or more of their bodies gets in her face, gaslighting her about where she stands with them… and it is intriguing to consider that a person with entire bodies to spare can afford to use physical presence as a toy and a tool.

Raftery, Steadman and Fletcher work convincingly as a team to convey the impression they share a self – most effectively in episode three, when we see Gestalt’s everyday routine and the way they work in the field. It’s also enjoyable to watch charismatic veterans Richardson and Lester prowl about at cross-purposes, and Munn lends the series some transatlantic momentum in her impetuous investigation.

But having adored the witty and occasionally wacky source novel, I was a little disappointed by the po-faced realism of The Rook, which discards O’Malley’s more eccentric world-building (such as a nefarious guild of Belgian bioengineers known as the Grafters). With the exception of Ingrid’s character, the screen Checquy lacks O’Malley’s sardonic fondness for bureaucracy – he wrote the novel while working at the Australian Transport Safety Bureau. And Myfanwy’s past and present personalities don’t emerge, and diverge, as sharply here as in the novel… at least not so far. I’ll definitely keep watching, though.

3.5 stars ★★★☆

The Rook is currently screening on Stan, with new episodes released weekly.

About the author

Mel Campbell is a freelance cultural critic and university lecturer who writes on film, TV, literature and media, with particular interests in history, costume, screen adaptations and futurism. Her first book was the nonfiction investigation Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit (2013), and she has co-written two romantic comedy novels with Anthony Morris: The Hot Guy (2017) and Nailed It (2019).