Karen Clarke (MyAnna Buring) is first seen with her daughter, Alice (Hebe Johnson) waiting for her husband, Rex (Matthew Goode), to be released from prison, where he has spent the last twelve years of his life. The daughter has been told it was for tax evasion, the neighbors have been told he’s been doing gardening overseas — a believable story, I’m sure — and we’re told … not a whole lot, really. At least, not early on. At the beginning, like most good thrillers, we’re only given bits and pieces of the true story. In The Poison Tree, most of them are relayed through flashbacks.
In fact, for the first half at least, we’re really given two stories to follow. The first involves Karen and Rex attempting to hide the whatever of their past from everyone else in their lives. The second is the flashback which will eventually lead up to the whatever that’s being hidden. Every time a flashback would come to an end, I wanted more. That’s part of The Poison Tree‘s success; it captivates and it wants you to constantly want more.
The flashback — even when it wasn’t directly leading to the big reveals — is where most of the tension, most of the drama, and most of the fun comes from. In the “present day” scenes, the two leading characters are pretty much always on the same page. This is especially true of the first half. Karen takes charge in pretty much every aspect, and Rex plays along. Their daughter suspects and questions nothing. In the second half, this changes, but to say why would be to reveal too much.
On the other hand, the scenes taking place in the past involve more conflict. A third character, Rex’s sister, Biba (Ophelia Lovibond), plays a large role. Karen meets Biba at an art expo, and is soon enough invited to move in with the siblings, who have a 24/7 party mentality. They, children of a millionaire, have a mansion. Shortly afterward, each scene is filled with tension — both spoken and unspoken, seen and unseen — and you keep wondering to yourself when something’s going to happen, and exactly what the characters are hiding.
And even once the big reveal — we know early on there’s been a murder, but who committed it and for what purpose are the real questions — occurs, there are a couple of smaller ones which are actually more surprising. The “modern day” storyline also sees new elements introduced. Karen’s getting weird text messages and phone calls — somebody knows! — and her family starts questioning her controlling personality and paranoia. The Poison Tree builds and builds and builds.
At which point, it ends, and you feel disappointed. While it’s not exactly a twist ending, I couldn’t help feeling let down by the way that The Poison Tree came to its conclusion. It feels abbreviated, and all of that tension and drama that it’s built up to this point disappears. It doesn’t go out with a bang; it finishes with a whimper. Thematically, I suppose it works just fine, but I wanted more.
The Poison Tree is a TV mini-series, which I thought I’d mention in case you thought it was a feature film you just happened to miss. When I mentioned distinct halves earlier on, it’s because the project is literally chopped into two hour-long (with commercials) segments. Because of this, there has to be a mini-climax at the end of the first half, and it also has to function as a way to get audiences to stick around for the second half. I wish this didn’t have to be the case, as it would have allowed for more even pacing and perhaps the ending to the second half wouldn’t have felt like such a disappointment.
I was still quite engaged. The Poison Tree is a twisty tale of morality and interesting characters, even if they’re not particularly deep. In fact, if the production has one big flaw, it’s in the characters. They don’t feel particularly real. They’re more caricatures than real people. A trait exemplified, and amplified into a character in a mini-series. It feels like one thing defines each person, and while that makes them easy to identify and remember — especially with a week-long gap between the first and second halves — it doesn’t make for compelling drama.
That’s no fault of the actors, though. MyAnna Buring plays her character straight as an arrow, doing whatever it takes to make the best life for her family. Matthew Goode plays a brother who would do whatever it takes to protect his sister, as well as a husband who needs to stay out of trouble. Ophelia Lovibond gets most of the scene-stealing moments as the free-willed, immature sister whose mental state is a touch shaky. Hebe Johnson was the weak link, but when paired on-screen with these three, and in her first acting role (according to IMDb), that’s forgivable.
The Poison Tree isn’t exactly a smashing success, but for a low-budget TV mini-series, you can’t expect greatness. It is a relatively engrossing thriller with a strong central mystery and some good acting from its three adult leads. It all leads up to an unsatisfactory conclusion, and its mini-series format leads to some weak characters and sloppy pacing, but I think it’s worth sitting through.