From serial killers to who’s the killer, there’s an intriguing puzzle box to unlock in this gripping four-part drama.
Stephen A. Russell

2 Dec 2020 - 3:41 PM  UPDATED 3 Dec 2020 - 8:20 AM

Luther creator, author and screenwriter Neil Cross’ new show The Sister lies somewhere at the heart of the Venn diagram overlap between crime thriller and gothic horror. Based on his novel Burial, but with added non-linear complexity, there’s a body in the woods, but we’re not quite sure why.

We know that everyman Nathan, played by disarmingly likeable Years and Years star Russell Tovey, has something to do with it. But is he a murderer? Disturbingly, he’s married to real estate agent Holly (Amrita Acharia, Game of Thrones), whose sister Elise (Simone Ashley, Sex Education) went missing seven years ago. And then there’s a knock on the door in the middle of a stormy night, revealing the positively Dickensian Bob, a sneering, lank-haired paranormal investigator (Bertie Carvel, Baghdad Central) bearing a dark secret. Sometimes the dead aren’t so silent.

Fans of Big Little Lies’ piecemeal reveal of exactly who is covering up what will be riveted by this four-part drama written by the British Cross that revels in his obsessions. “Temperamentally, aesthetically and, to some extent, philosophically, I’m just an old goth,” he chuckles. That’s borne out by the standard-issue black garb he wears as we chat on Zoom. “I was born a goth, and there’s something about that crossover that has always appealed to me, and I suspect always will.”

It’s there at the chilling core of Luther. Cross notes the hit Idris Elba-led show once prompted former BBC exec Ben Stephenson to ask him of the gritty London-set serial killer series, “Do you realise that you’ve managed to smuggle a horror show onto primetime?”

Eerily stylish, The Sister is a fitting follow-up that turns the screw with aching suspense, as Nina Toussaint-White’s detective begins to spy a chink in the armour of old alibis. One-part procedural, there’s also a cold wind rustling the veil between life and death, like Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca orEmily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

‘Years and Years’ star Russell Tovey on sinking in the mud of murder mystery ‘The Sister’
It’s his most full-on role since appearing on stage in ‘Angels in America’ and mischievously subverts his nice-guy image.

Some of the show’s creepiest scenes involve Tovey standing all alone in his darkened home, terrorised by bumps in the night. “I love how the spectral and the numinous and the questions we have about the fundamental nature of underlying reality could intersect with having cornflakes, making a cup of tea and going to work,” Cross says of the subverted mundanity of Nathan and Molly planning kids together while the spectre of her sister’s disappearance hovers over all.

It’s a mood he learned from the best, Robert Wise’s 1963 film The Haunting, based on the Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House – shining proof that less is more in horror. “It was like having the carpet of reality dragged away from under my feet,” Cross says of its malignant atmosphere. “Utterly terrifying.”

Nightmares inform the central mystery of The Sister. One night back in the ’80s, full of cheap cider, Cross cut through dark woods to get back to his Bristol council estate. He woke up disturbed the next morning with what he was convinced was a memory, not a dream, of knifing an old homeless man to death. So much so that he searched his clothes for traces of blood. That primal fear set in motion a career mining precisely this sort of dread. But how much of crime writing is nightmare-channelling, and how much is perverse wish-fulfilment? “The truth of it is that I am distractingly normal,” Cross laughs. “I’m scared of everything. And that’s great, because I’ve built a career on it.”

Tovey’s normality helps sell our complicity in Nathan’s possible crime. “It’s magical casting,” Cross agrees. “Russell’s able to carry off all those levels in every moment. It just feels like proper human complexity.”

Acharia similarly impressed Cross, to the point that he renamed the series not for the missing sibling, but the one left behind. “She’s our secret weapon. I’m not very good at titles, but one of the ways to name something, and I know this sounds crass, is fundamentally to ask, ‘what is it about?’ So in that context, Jaws is the best title of all time, or Raiders of the Lost Ark. What’s at stake? And Amrita was so good, that’s why it became The Sister.”

There’s something glorious about his female characters that reminds me of Australian gender and film theory authority Barbara Creed’s idea of the monstrous feminine. Whether it’s the triangle of women dead or alive who may yet bring the whole house down in The Sister, or the chaos agent that is Ruth Wilson’s fabulously wicked Alice taunting Elba in Luther. “Do you know, I’ve never really thought about it that way, and I spent a lot of lockdown discussing the monstrous feminine with my older son, who’s now at university. But people love Alice. They shouldn’t at all, but what’s really attractive about people like her, or Hannibal Lecter, is not the crimes they commit. That’s secondary. It’s the fact that they don’t feel bad about it. They enjoy their lives.”

That fascinates Cross, and his millions of fans. Again, he insists these creations far exceed his reality. “I’m such a bundle of neuroses, anxieties and pounding, constant self-hatred, that the idea of living a life where you can just do anything you feel like doing and never feel bad about it, that’s what appeals to me.”

We’re lucky he unloads all that anxiety on the page, and that there’s no body buried in those Bristol woods. Probably.

The Sister airs weekly on SBS from 9.30pm Wednesday 2 December. Episodes arrive at SBS On Demand the same day they go to air. Here is episode 1:


Follow the author @SARussellwords

More from The Guide
It's a classic 80s good cop bad cop team up in 'Amsterdam Vice'
Based on the most successful Dutch book series of all time, Amsterdam Vice looks back to a swinging 80s where the city was on a knife-edge.
Top new series in December
New drama series arrive in December from the USA, the UK, Canada, Norway, Switzerland, Denmark, France, Israel and Brazil, plus a documentary series from powerhouse filmmaking duo, Alex Gibney and Steven Spielberg. Summer is all set to sizzle.
Here’s what’s leaving SBS On Demand in December 2020
It is your last chance to catch top-quality entertainment across television and film. Get stuck in this December!
'Agent' puts a South African spin on the glamour of the World Game
Handsome, smart, on his way up: South Africa sports agent Blaze should have it all. Instead, all he’s got is a whole lot of problems.
Get away from it all with some escapist TV at SBS On Demand
Whether you want an easy binge, to gaze at some beautiful locations and costumes or just really get away from it all, the Enchanted Escapism Collection at SBS On Demand provides all the escapism you need.
The Playlist 136 - 'The Undoing' / '4 Corners' / Interview with the stars of 'We Are Who We Are'

Fiona speaks to the stars of Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino’s ('Call Me By Your Name') first foray into television 'We Are Who We Are', we chat about political coverage in the media including the ABC’s flagship current affairs program '4 Corners' which made waves with its recent report "Inside the Canberra Bubble", Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant tell one another big little lies in new drama 'The Undoing' and we offer some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content picks for what to watch on SBS On Demand.

SBS reveals boundary-pushing 2021 program slate
Top talent including Jay Laga’aia, Celia Pacquola, Adam Liaw and Yoson An, a gold rush drama series and a diverse slate of documentaries are all part of a powerful and thought-provoking line-up.
Why you should watch 'Trigonometry'
"It's nice to make something that you know has irritated some people!," says 'Trigonometry' star Thalissa Teixeira of the show she desperately wanted to be in. (Now streaming at SBS On Demand).
Discover the pure drama of these true stories at SBS On Demand
Dive into music, war, politics and relationships in these dramatic documentaries, streaming now in the True Stories. Pure Drama collection at SBS On Demand.