When tracking organised crime, the first rule is always “follow the money”, and in McMafia there’s just so much of it going round. A look at the increasingly globalised world of high-end crime, it’s a series where a moment spent on a keyboard in London can send money bouncing around the world until – it’s origin thoroughly disguised – it ends up in the bank account of a Middle Eastern thug ready to do his invisible master’s bidding.
The bad news is, nowhere is safe; the good news is, this lavish and well-crafted 8-episode thriller is more than happy to spend a lot of money of its own exposing this global web of crime.
When this series first launched, there was talk that lead James Norton was using it as something of an audition for the role of James Bond, and there’s definitely a Bond-like feel to the way McMafia visits many glamorous and exotic parts of the globe in telling its story. It opens with a sequence that shows off Mumbai as a gleaming international city, then has a Russian mobster’s car explode in one of the city’s underpasses as part of an assassination attempt.
Norton plays Alex Godman, an English investment banker who at first seems refreshingly committed to keeping his business on the right side of the law. Largely that’s a reaction to his upbringing: both his father and his uncle made a lot of dirty money in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, and the fact they’re both living in exile in the UK suggests there are a few people who would like to see that money drain through their lifeless fingers.
Despite a seemingly loving relationship with his partner Rebecca (Juliet Rylance), Alex is something of a chilly character. He’s a man who looks good in a sharp suit (those next-Bond rumours may have some foundation) and seems right at home at fancy parties and in flashy offices, but who isn’t quite as far removed from the family business as he likes to think.
Norton does a first-rate job of hinting at those murky depths and the unease that comes with them, even as Alex is scurrying around trying to keep his (legal) hedge-fund business afloat after his rivals start spreading rumours that he’s in bed with his family’s shady connections.
One of the many casting coups in this all-star series is having Aleksey Serebryakov (best known from Russian film Leviathan) as Alex’s crumbling, vodka-soaked criminal dad, Dmitri. Just about all the Russians here are played by Russian actors, and they seem to especially relish their characters’ tortured and tormented plight; only David Strathairn as Israeli politician and crime kingpin Semiyon Kleiman has to fake a Russian accent.
Here Serebryakov’s ominous bulk is used as a living symbol of the heavy toll the criminal life takes – at one point Alex has to talk him down from a drunken half-hearted suicide attempt. In contrast, Alex’s uncle Boris (David Dencik) is clearly a man with ambition and drive. When Alex is out of legitimate options, it’s Boris who throws him a lifeline by hooking him up with one of his associates. Boris was also the one who ordered the attempted assassination of Russian mobster Vadim (Merab Ninidze) in the opening scene. That act of war just might backfire on him, and drag Alex deeper into a world he never wanted to join.
McMafia is loosely based on (the credits describe it as “inspired by”) Misha Glenny’s 2008 non-fiction book McMafia: Seriously Organised Crime, which looked at the way organised crime became more corporate in structure in the 90s as various forms of criminal activity – human trafficking, drug smuggling and money laundering to name three – became more globalised. So a large slice of this series is spent tracing the crime connections that Alex finds himself increasingly entangled in. The second episode especially traces the misery of human trafficking in a way that makes it all too clear exactly how dirty Alex’s hands will become.
It’s this focus on the money, and on the international scope of this kind of crime, that makes McMafia such an intriguing take on the organised crime genre. While Alex slowly finds himself drawn into the family business – comparisons with The Godfather would not be entirely out of place – it’s the sheer expanse of this hidden world that has the biggest impact. Beneath the surface glamour of fancy hotels and luxury resorts lies a world of murder and corruption, and Alex is going to find out it’s a very long way to the bottom.
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McMafia starts Wednesday 13 February at 8:30pm on SBS. After they air, episodes will stream at SBS On Demand.