For anyone baffled by the in-jokes of Sherlock’s second series, The 7.39, a new TV drama penned by One Day’s David Nicholls will come a as a refreshing revelation. As a one-off TV movie it has no existing fans, no franchise and no previous cliffhangers to satisfy. Instead it simply lets its story unfold naturally over two fantastic episodes: the first following the growing relationship of two strangers, Carl and Sally, who meet and fall in love on their morning commute; the second charting the consequences their relationship is to have on those around them. And these consequences are to be considerable – because Carl and Sally both already have partners.
The 7.39, then, is about love – how people fall in love and whether it is possible to be in love with more than one person. It is also about duty versus freedom and possibility. Carl and Sally are drawn to each other in large part because of the frustration they feel with the lot that middle age has given them: work, routine and (in Carl’s case) a lack of intimacy with one’s kids. Their relationship is a form of escapism, a chance to be seen by a new pair of eyes and so to glimpse the possibility of a different life, as a different person. But life cannot simply and cleanly be re-written, as the film, thoroughly without preaching, reveals.
Nicholls deals wonderfully with the problems of boundaries –as an adult, is it inappropriate to make a new friend from a chance encounter? If we are taken, is it inappropriate to flirt just a little with someone whose company we like? The first episode perfectly stages the incremental way in which Carl and Sally’s relationship develops. There is no melodramatic moment when love is “switched” on as if it was an electric grill, and their affair – right up until the end of the episode, where (without giving spoilers) things start to speed up – never seems inevitable. Instead there are just moments with countless opportunities to turn back – the first time they start to wait for each other to catch the train, the first time they go for drinks socially outside of commuting – countless opportunities to ask “Is this still okay?” It is this awareness of the gradual way in which betrayal occurs that makes the contrast with the second episode, when the more black-and-white consequences occur, so painful.
A subtle script obviously needs good actors to carry it, and The 7.39’s cast was flawless. David Morrisey and Sheridan Smith put in easy, unaffected performances as Carl and Sally, while Olivia Colman was remarkable as Carl’s wife; mumsy and sunny in the first episode, bitter as coal in the second. In the supporting cast Justin Salinger and Sean Maguire were good, but better, funny, as (respectively) Carl’s unbelievably obnoxious boss and Sally’s macho-man fiancé (“All I’ve eaten is four energy bars and now I can’t stop shaking”).
Nuanced, disconcerting and morally ambivalent; catch The 7.39 with your boyfriend or girlfriend so you can argue about it afterwards – just not too much.