Tom Hardy and Shaun Evans star in "The Take." (Encore )
"The Take," a British miniseries first broadcast in 2009 over Sky1, makes its way to these shores Friday via Encore, sister station to Starz. It adapts a 2005 novel by Martina Cole, a bestselling author in the U.K., who sets her stories in the London gangland; her books have a reputation for graphic violence and tough female characters.
Every major character in "The Take," and most every minor one, is either a criminal, a retired criminal, related to a criminal or dating one, and as usual in gangster dramas they are distinguished within their shared badness by their taste, manners, self-control and capability for thought and thoughtfulness. The worst ones make the better ones look good by comparison and give your sympathy a place to settle, tenuously. The better ones just want their businesses to thrive in peace; they have a sense of proportion and know how to share. The worst are crazy brutes who can see no farther than the last bright shiny thing to catch their eye — though they can be charming in small doses.
Freddie Jackson (Tom Hardy) is one of the not-nice ones, though he has a bit of that small-dose charm: He will bring your wife flowers before he smashes your head through the screen of your TV set. "The Take" opens in 1984 with his release from prison back into the outside underworld, controlled from behind bars by the ruthless but sensible Ozzy (Brian Cox). The second episode jumps to 1988, the third begins in 1994 and the fourth carries on from the third, but the production goes relatively easy on the historical signposts.
It's a family story, primarily, about the contrasting, schematically contrasted fortunes of two cousins — Freddie and the younger but smarter Jimmy (Shaun Evans), a better sort of bad guy — and the sisters they marry. Unfaithful Freddie's besotted wife, Jackie (Kierston Wareing), goes fairly quickly from a mildly overexcited pill popper to an utter mess; Jimmy's girl, Maggie (Charlotte Riley), is the story's designated (pretty) Good Person. If you've seen four gangster films, you've seen something like this before.
The film is less concerned with the mechanics of the mob than with the power arrangements among friends and relations always watching their backs for stray knives. There are crimes, but no cops; it is no trouble at all getting away with murder. You spend a lot of time waiting for the next awful thing to happen, and then it does, in a parade of scenes that end in tears or violence or both, but which don't quite hang together to make a world. You fear for the characters, reflexively, without quite caring about them; it becomes tiring after awhile.
Still, "The Take" is handsomely made, if a little too susceptible to stylishness; the dialogue plays well, and the performances are all very fine. Hardy manages to keep Freddie watchable even as he becomes impossible company, and the tenderness he conveys in a couple of brief scenes with Freddie's little boy is the series' bright spot. You've got to wade through a lot of muck to get there, though.