In the bleak outskirts of Northern Ontario, maverick detective John Cardinal (Billy Campbell) is assigned to investigate the murder of thirteen-year old Katie Pine. Cardinal has a history with this case – when Katie was still classed as a missing person he was removed from that investigation (due to his dogged determination that she had been murdered).
Although he was eventually proved correct, there’s little sense of victory on his part as together with a new partner, Lisa Delorme (Karine Vanasse), they face the possibility that a serial killer may be at work. But their work is far from smooth, especially since Lisa is pursuing an agenda of her own ….
Cardinal premiered on CTV (in English) and Super Écran (in French) during early 2017. It’s based on the 2001 novel by Giles Blunt, Forty Words for Sorrow, which won the Crime Writer’s Association Silver Dagger that year.
No time is wasted in establishing the tone of the series. The setting – a bleak, remote, icy wilderness – informs the performances, which are restrained and undemonstrative. Cardinal himself is an archetypal creation – an obsessive, driven man who is prepared to sacrifice everything in order to find the murderer. Billy Campbell’s dialled-down performance (often Cardinal barely speaks above a whisper) is pitched at just the right level.
A male/female detective partnership is something that’s been seen many times before, so Cardinal needs to be able to bring something new to the table. To begin with, the pair operate along conventional lines. A colleague gives Lisa two important pieces of advice about how to deal with Cardinal. “Don’t be a yes man. Never disagree with him”.
Cardinal propounds his theory that Katie was murdered by a serial killer. If this is so, argues Lisa, then why haven’t they found any other bodies? These early skirmishes help to delineate their characters, but things aren’t as straightforward as they first seem. Lisa has been sent, in part, to investigate Cardinal (it’s believed that he has been receiving corrupt payoffs from Corbett, a local drug lord) and her dual investigative roles help to create a pleasing sense of tension which runs across the serial.
With its icy setting, moody tracking shots of desolate wastelands and ominous incidental music, Cardinal taps into the current vogue for Nordic Noir. Cardinal himself, an isolated figure with a broken marriage, fits into this bleak landscape well. He may believe that they have a repeater on their hands, but nobody else is convinced. Although you sense that he’s not too bothered about this – like any true maverick he’s always prepared to strike out on his own.
Perhaps fittingly, given the setting, Cardinal is content to move at a glacial pace – a high-octane thriller series it most definitely isn’t. Instead, as each episode proceeds the various plot threads are teased out little by little. Episode three – Edie and Eric – is especially noteworthy, as it introduces us to the titular characters (played by Allie MacDonald and Brendan Fletcher) who are key to solving the case.
The second disc has a several very brief featurettes. Inside the Location (2″43′), Adapting Cardinal To The Screen (2″53′) and Who is John Cardinal? (3″04′).
Although it’s true to say that Cardinal doesn’t do anything terribly original (those especially familiar with the genre will probably spot some of the twists before they happen) it’s still an engrossing watch which quickly draws the viewer in. The running time (six episodes of approx. 42 minutes each) feels about right – as it allows time for the mystery to develop but is still a short enough run to ensure that the story isn’t too drawn out. Recommended.
Cardinal – The Complete First Season is released by eOne on the 2nd of October 2017.