The superb Stephen Graham fights far-right hate in this chilling TV series

The Walk-In ★★★★

You’ve seen Stephen Graham about the place: whether being underused in a Hollywood blockbuster or showcased in dour Brit drama, his battered bulldog face and underdog air pretty much always elevate the material. Graham brings an intensity and authenticity to a wide range of characters, frequently fierce and combative and often a little dodgy. Here, however, he’s playing the hero, albeit a hero at the end of a long hard redemption arc.

In the based-on-a-true story The Walk-In, Graham is Matthew Collins, a one-time British fascist who turned his life around to found the anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate. In 2017, Collins managed Robbie Mullen, a member of far-right hate group National Action who became an informer, as the group planned the murder of Labour MP Rosie Cooper.

Stephen Graham in The Walk-In: long, hard redemption.

With tension in the community at dangerous highs amid the toxic Brexit debate, and in the wake of the assassination of Cooper’s fellow MP Jo Cox by a white supremacist, the show depicts Collins as a man fighting for what’s right while weighed down by the memory of his own wrongs.

Graham is predictably superb in a performance grounded entirely in reality: a husband and father who is unambiguously one of the good guys, but whose zeal for the cause carries with it the shadow of the days when he was definitely one of the bad guys. That shadow is what hangs over and haunts Collins at every turn.

Flashbacks make explicit the horrors perpetrated by the gang Collins ran with as a youth, but all that is needed to convey the near-unbearable burden of guilt is the bleak sorrow written on Graham’s face while he remembers.

Is the work he does now to fight racism and hatred ever going to be enough to lift that burden? Is the good fight worth the potential cost of his activism to his family? And is Collins’s passion driven as much by the need to relieve his own conscience as his concern for others?

Bobby Schofield as Matt in an episode of The Walk-In.Credit:SBS

These are the internal moral questions that he wrestles with at the same time as he must deal with the very real practical matters of preventing a murder and keeping his wife and kids safe from the fascists who are targeting him personally.

The script, in concert with Graham, does a masterful job of understating these themes, making the reality clear while never overplaying the hand or falling into the trap that so many dramas do, of characters who behave as if they know they’re in a TV show. The Walk-In is grim, but never excessive, blending the chilling darkness of the world it confronts with everyday domesticity that comes as a bracing relief.

It’s not feelgood TV by any means. The very existence of the racist brutes that Collins opposes, shown planning their atrocities and training for the “war” they believe themselves to be fighting, is frightening and incredibly depressing. There is no glamourising of the evil here: the fascists in the show are monstrously loathsome while at the same time disturbingly ordinary – and in some cases, entirely pathetic.

In fact, the ordinariness of it all is the striking feature of The Walk-In. There are no dashing spies or charismatic finger-steepling villains here: just a battle of massive importance between decent people struggling for a decent world, and others who have had their minds broken by hate. It’s all playing out on real streets, in real homes, with real people who feel the crushing impact of bigotry and violence in a very real way.

Graham is the standout here, as covered, but mention must also be made of Andrew Ellis, whose turn as Robbie Mullen, the committed fascist who grows conflicted and turns on his comrades when the reality of their plans starts to bite, is a performance of tortured, conflicted courage. Also shining is Dean-Charles Chapman as Jack Renshaw, the young would-be martyr to the white supremacist cause, providing a portrait of deep self-loathing twisted and turned horrifically outwards into a savage bloodlust.

It’s not cheering stuff at all, but in this often glum and saddening depiction of recent history, there is to be found hope for a fallen world, and even among the wreckage, real heroes.

The Walk-In is on Thursday, 9.20pm, on SBS and SBS On Demand.

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