The magic in Painted Lady (Sundays, April 26 and May 3; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) is acting, writing, and directing. If you recall the second Prime Suspect, in which it became clear that New Scotland Yard detective chief inspector Jane Tennison was on her way to iconic status in the Culture Wars, you may also remember it was as much about the politics of race as of gender. In the dug-up garden in a benighted Afro-Caribbean neighborhood in a wet London, they found the decomposed body of a 17-year-old girl. Jane interrupted an interracial love affair with a fellow detective to investigate. Because some suspects were black and others white, the locals hated the bobbies, and with an election coming up, every aspect of the case was sensitive. From skull fragments, the forensics lab made a clay model of the dead girl’s head. But so were models fashioned of a troubled city and a double helix of ulterior motives. Everybody lied because everybody was guilty, and by the time we arrived at the truth, after many interrogations of the suspects, endless replays of a videotape of a reggae concert, and much meditation on Yoruba amulets, all the beauty in the world seemed to have been smashed.
Allan Cubitt wrote that Prime Suspect. And he has written this four-hour Masterpiece Theatre mini-series especially for its star, Helen Mirren, the woman who made intelligence sexy, whose passionate sonar set the brain on fire. Mirren is Maggie Sheridan, a recovering rock star and blues singer of the Janis Joplin sort – we see her face on album covers and hear a smoky voice purporting to be hers – drying out on the Irish estate of her old friend Sir Charles Stafford (Iain Cutherbertson). When Sir Charles is murdered, and a painting stolen from his Italian Renaissance collection, Maggie enters the various underworlds of loan-sharking and drug dealing in Dublin and of black-market art in London and New York.
That’s the setup. The details include the drug addiction and enormous debts of Stafford’s son Sebastian (Iain Glen), a love affair with a shady art dealer (Franco Nero), old film of a young Sir Charles behaving badly in Italy during the war, and Maggie’s pretending to be a Polish countess undercover for U.S. Customs. And the gloss, brilliantly staged by director Julian Jarrold, is art. The stolen painting is Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holefernes. Nero’s name is the same as that of the man who raped Artemisia in the seventeenth century. Like the saint in so many Renaissance paintings, Sebastian will hang naked from the rafters with arrows in him. In the bathtub, Maggie is a dead Marat, and when she explains Gainsborough, she’s quoting Sister Wendy. PBS is pandering shamelessly to an upscale audience, and Mirren is magnificent. I can’t wait to see her in the forthcoming Showtime movie as (gasp) Ayn Rand.