REVIEW by Dewi Huw Owen

NWR Issue r14

35 Diwrnod

35 Diwrnod, as is the case with all Welsh-language drama from S4C, is repeated with subtitles and also available with subtitles on iPlayer. The first episode will be broadcast this Sunday, 5 March at 9pm and will continue weekly until 23 April. The 9pm Sunday slot is S4C’s flagship for quality drama. 35 Diwrnod was written by Siwan Jones.

In the dead of night in an old and creaking house a beautiful young mother is awoken from her slumbers by the panicked calls of her partner. ‘Joy,’ he hisses, ‘Joy, ma’ raid ni fynd, nawr!’ (Joy, Joy, we have to go, now!) The woman, disorientated and frightened, lifts her baby in her arms, and the young family sneak down the ancient stairs towards the back door. As they are about to make their escape into the cold night air Joy remembers her child’s blanket, left absentmindedly on a kitchen cabinet the night before. ‘Ifan,’ she whispers, ‘blanced Macsen… yn y gegin.’ Ifan winces, but nods, and creeps through the kitchen door in search of his baby’s comforter. It is a door through which he will never return….

Thus opens the breathlessly compelling third series of 35 Diwrnod (35 Days), S4C’s innovative crime drama. From this arresting pre-credits sequence, viewers are whisked back all of the thirty-five days of the show’s title to see just how Joy, Ifan, and Macsen’s desperate situation came about.

We are shown a family regrouping after the death of their matriarch. Her sons and daughters and their significant others arrive from far and wide to gather in the stately farmhouse of their childhood and pay their last respects to the departed. The siblings are also lured to their old home by a sizeable inheritance. Each has their own designs for the estate, with its large tracts of land and grand old house overflowing with secrets. Meanwhile, a few fields away from the main house in their own, more modest home, their aunt, uncle and wayward cousin also plot the fate of the land as they plough its earth and muse on the past as they look, with some trepidation, towards the future. All the wants and needs of each of these varied characters hinge on the outcome of the posthumous redistribution of the family’s wealth. However, the contents of their mother’s will, like so many other things to do with their familial past, is a mystery to almost all of them.

This is a drama more reminiscent of a Russian novel than S4C’s traditional Sunday night fare. The collection of characters, from the promiscuous Nia to the homely Gwenda, and from the uptight Geraint to the headstrong Dafydd, and the taut and ever tightening tension borne out of the differences between them, could have been lifted straight from one of Tolstoy or Turgenev’s sagas. The themes of a web of familial deceit, an implied patricide, the evils of hedonism, the existentialism of the man apart, and the potential mania of the collective social unit, could, meanwhile, grace the pages of any work by Dostoyevsky. This is a rich, deep, and disturbing work: a subtle study in human selfishness and its myriad manifestations.

The subtlety of its writing is echoed beautifully in 35 Diwrnod’s cinematography. Static cameras are used to great effect, framing the human protagonists as mere players in the grander tale that is the generation-spanning house itself. Often, a speaking character will appear out of focus, partially hidden by piece of furniture, framed by a room’s structure, or even be placed out on the extreme margins of a shot addressing a figure left entirely off-camera. The camera angles in each room do not vary, regardless of which character, or how many of them, might be in a particular scene. The house and its perspective is the constant, those who dwell within it are merely fleeting players on its ever-creaking stage. This production is a painterly and symbolically aware visual experience.

The cast give uniformly stellar performances, developing on the well-rounded character profiles and the intricate plot to portray their roles in a purposefully naturalistic and restrained style. This minimalism is even sustained during the series’ many moments of bitter conflict, cruel backstabbing, and grievous violence, giving the whole story an unsettlingly human feel. There is no pantomime villain here, no inexplicably crazed antagonist snarling, nor any character so unquestioningly bad as to render his menace as naught but a harmless televisual contrivance. Rather, there are simply people; simple, ordinary people, who are driven by jealousy, guilt, grief, lust, anger, hatred, love, debt, and pride, to behave unspeakably with one another other. But these characters can also be kind, funny, playful, trusting, and loving. They could be real – normal people compelled to do abnormal things – and for that reason, they are genuinely terrifying.

The time afforded to 35 Diwrnod gives it its crowning glory. Across its eight weeks we are treated to a masterful, gradual unwinding of the many twisted knots that bind this most dysfunctional of families together. Each character has their own time to breathe; each strand of story its own space to fully unwind; every idle remark, pointed silence, and mistaken intention has its own opportunity to impact fully on the often surprising and sickeningly inevitable march to that first, futile, flight for survival. The audience knows where the story is going from the outset, and its writers, cast and crew know just how best to take us there.

In all ways, series 3 of 35 Diwrnod is, quite simply, a masterpiece.

Dewi Huw Owen is a PhD student at the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, writing on translation theory and the history of translation in Wales during the nineteenth century. Huw won the Urdd Eisteddfod Crown in 2008 and has published fiction and nonfiction bilingually in publications including Tu ChwithTaliesin and Y Pedair Tudalen.

Editorial Note: Since such high quality drama deserves its greatest possible audience and impact on an influential demographic, S4C should urgently consider providing DVDs of their drama failing the extended provision of drama's current, limited iPlayer runs.


previous review: Byw Celwydd, the Bay’s answer to Borgen
next review: The Elephant’s Foot


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