Troubled Sam (Jude Law), trying to out-run both his business mistakes and his personal life, finds himself on the mysterious island of Osea where everything starts to get very spooky. Meanwhile, another visitor, Helen, (Naomie Harris) comes to Osea — will she uncover the truth about what happened?

Episodes viewed: 5 of 7

The newest drama from Dennis Kelly is the sort of series that it’s almost impossible to review because to say too much would be to spoil its well-earned twists and turns.

What we can say is that Kelly, whose cult drama Utopia was one of the most inventive television programmes of recent years, is on magnificent form here, both playing with folk-horror tropes and paying homage to them while spinning a carefully plotted story of madness, sacrifice, betrayal and possible revenge. 

The Third Day

The action takes place on the mysterious island of Osea over three time periods — ‘Summer’, ‘Autumn’ and ‘Winter’ — and begins with Jude Law’s troubled Sam preventing a tragedy. Sam, who is in the midst of a prolonged nervous breakdown following a devastating event, is running from both family and work. Unfortunately for him he ends up on the remote island of Osea — and that’s where things start to get very weird indeed.

Fans of folk-horror classics such as Witchfinder General, The Blood On Satan’s Claw and The Devil Rides Out will know exactly where Kelly, who co-created The Third Day with Felix Barrett, the genius behind the experimental Punchdrunk theatre group, is heading. The suspicious locals who would rather drop mysterious hints than explain anything, the sense of something nasty lurking in the woodshed (or in this case, the oft-mentioned Big House), the talk of an upcoming festival complete with glimpses of people wearing fish heads and waving knives, the hints of blood sacrifice. Yes, it’s The Wicker Man by way of Midsommar — and by the time Sam drops acid with lost soul Jess (Katherine Waterston) as various islanders caper below, you’re prepared to accept that anything can and might occur.

Dennis Kelly clearly understands and loves the genre and knows when to up the horror.

It works because Kelly has such a tight grip on the material. He clearly understands and loves the genre and knows when to up the horror — Sam’s repeated visions of bloody, gaping wounds — and when the merest hint of disquiet will do (a revivalist church meeting on the island is arguably one of the most unnerving moments of the entire show). Such control also means that even when The Third Day is at its most opaque and potentially ridiculous, you still go with its crazed flow.

It helps, too, that the cast are excellent, with Law, in particular, turning in a remarkable vanity-free performance as a man who thinks he has lost everything, only to realise that he has far further to fall. And if Paddy Considine as an obsequious pub landlord and Emily Watson as his foul-mouthed wife do occasionally come across as more Royston Vasey than The Wicker Man, those choices seem intentional, a way of daring the audience to commit to both the story being told and the way in which Kelly is telling it.

For what makes the opening episodes of The Third Day so fascinating is the way in which Kelly, ably assisted in the first three episodes by director Marc Munden’s woozy camera work, constantly shifts tones, mixing horror with comedy and keeping viewers unsure as to whether they are watching a homage to folk-horror, a very clever send-up or some kind of mix between the two. Despite this shifting tone, The Third Day largely plays fair with plot, providing some answers at the end of episode three, which ends on a bittersweet note of hope, before revealing more in the final segment, ‘Winter’. Here, the tension is upped once more as Naomie Harris’ Helen arrives on Osea accompanied by her two daughters. She claims to be celebrating the oldest, Ellie’s (Nico Parker), birthday, but it’s clear that she has an agenda of her own…

Less experimental than ‘Summer’, ‘Winter’ is arguably the more interesting segment as Kelly moves away from the blood and (literal) guts of the first three episodes to hint at a corrupt society that is collapsing in on itself. The Osea that we see in ‘Winter’ is, if anything, even more troubled than the island Sam visited. Hotels are boarded up, shops closed, the islanders even more divided, the whispered talk all of child sacrifice, chosen ones and bloody murder. These episodes, co-written by Kelly, Kit de Waal and Dean O’Loughlin and directed by Philippa Lowthorpe, feel increasingly ominous as Helen, desperate to uncover the truth, puts those she loves the most in harm’s way.

As to what exactly has gone so very wrong — the answer partially lies in the middle segment ‘Autumn’, which will be broadcast as a live theatrical event (on 3 October), filmed on the real Osea island and directed by Barrett. All we can say is, given the tone and scope of the filmed segments of this hugely ambitious and deeply satisfying project, those tuning in should expect to have all their nastiest nightmares come true.

Dennis Kelly turns the horror up to 11 in this increasingly terrifying tale of a local island for local people. Paddy Considine, Emily Watson, Jude Law and Naomie Harris provide the chills. 

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