One of the key elements that makes The Sister, the new mystery thriller from the murderous mind of Luther creator Neil Cross, really sing is the creeping presence of what may or may not be the ghost of its central victim Elise Fox (Simone Ashley). A cold chill of gothic horror seeps into its very bones. And Baghdad Central star Bertie Carvel is paramount to achieving that freaky twist, as lank-haired paranormal investigator Bob.
A malign presence, he threatens to upend the happy marriage between Elise’s sister Holly (Amrita Acharia) and her husband Nathan – a brilliantly cast-against-type Russell Tovey as a man who knows far more about Elise’s fate than he’s letting on.
“Bob wants to believe in ghosts because he lost his mother, whom he loved very much, and would like nothing more than if there was a world in which she might still be able to communicate with him,” Carvel says of his wonderfully macabre role. “His career as a ghostbuster has come out of an obsessive need to prove their existence and a desperate fear that they might not [exist]. Until our story happens.”
Elise is the very definition of the unquiet dead. Whatever happened to her in a dark forest one unfortunate New Year’s Eve implicates both Bob and Nathan, propelling the non-linear narrative unravelling her untimely demise in this gripping four-part series. Carvel loved the physical transformation involved in inhabiting Bob, from his flowing dark coat to a bedraggled wig. It’s a look Tovey describes as being like the “Grim Reaper” and wouldn’t look amiss in a Dickens adaptation.
“Aideen Morgan, the costume designer, and Sophie Slotover on hair and makeup design, and all these clever people I really enjoy collaborating with, help you create something three dimensional,” Carvel says. “Your job as an actor is to take all of those clever people’s work and push it through a single funnel and make it feel three dimensional.”
Executive producer Kate Harwood relished collaborating with Carvel again after working together on Baghdad Central. “Casting Bob was all about finding someone who has the force and power that Bertie has, but he’s also a bit of a shapeshifter, which is one of his special skills.”
How long before Holly figures out the dark secret shared by Bob and Nathan? The Sister also fields GameFace’s Nina Toussaint-White as detective Jacki, who just so happens to be Holly’s best friend. “It’s essentially a cast of four,” Harwood notes. “The great thing about Russell is that in some ways, he’s grown up with the audience. He’s someone that people trust and like and empathise with, so even if he’s done deep, dark deeds, you want to carry him through it.”
The twisted foundation of Nathan’s relationship with Holly creates a fascinating dilemma, Harwood adds. “This is the paradox, that the person who could most destroy her is the man who loves her more than anyone in the world. She’s healed him, he’s healed her. And then you’ve got to have the sneaky friend coming in the back door to crack the whole thing open.”
Jacki’s quest for justice for Elise is simultaneously a force of good, and much like Bob, casts her as a chaos agent who can bring the whole haunted house down. Toussaint-White leapt on the opportunity.
“I was a huge Luther fan, so obviously when the audition came through, and it had Neil’s name attached to it, I wanted to throw my hat into the ring straight away, before even reading the script,” she recalls. “Jacki seemed to me like a bit of a lone wolf, and it’s why her relationship, for me, developed with Holly so quickly. She’s so driven in her career that she doesn’t give time to her personal life.”
Acharia, who played Irri in the similarly morally dubious Game of Thrones, savoured the slippery nature of our shifting sympathies. “I love scripts where you just don’t know who to root for. And then you catch yourself rooting for the wrong person.”
While showrunner Cross’ source novel Burial was, as he describes it, a “meat and potatoes psychological thriller,” with a straightforward trajectory, he has introduced three discombobulating timelines to the show that throw the viewer while trying to figure out what’s going on. But don’t call it an adaptation. He hates the term, and Acharia agrees.
“I love the book and read it back to back twice,” she says. “But like Neil, I have an issue with the word adaptation. What we’ve created is really different… and that was exciting for me, the jump from one to the other.”
She believes the non-linear structure is one of the show’s greatest weapons, though confesses it was challenging for the actors. “Going backwards and forwards between timelines, you had to make sure that the energy of your character in that space, and their emotional world, corresponded with where they were at that time,” she says. “How they’re going to react is going to be very different now than how it’s going to be a decade later.”
That’s particularly true of Holly, who had to survive losing her sister. “The idea of not knowing what happened, and probably in the back of her mind knowing that she’s dead and then going through a hundred different ways of how she died, that to me is mind-blowing. Because the idea of not knowing where the closest person to me is, is horrific. And then there’s this whole thing of Holly being really resilient and picking everybody else up. Whether it’s Nathan, her mum or dad, she just sort of gets on with it.”
It’s a wicked set-up, Carvel says. “I was continually in awe of the fact we were making this for primetime television, because it’s a really dark story. And every twist in the plot just sharpens and darkens it in a very delicious way.”
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:
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