Adapted from the critically acclaimed novel of the same name, The City and the City is a methodically paced crime thriller that manages to effortlessly blend sci-fi elements into a murder mystery format. With an emotionally torn Inspector Tyador Borlú (David Morrissey) at the helm, The City and the City uses a clever blend of lighting, editing and establishing shots to bring the dual-reality world to life in a maturely written story surprisingly lacking in expository dialogue. The City and the City is intentionally slow-paced too, allowing time to really immerse yourself in the world but in doing so, the plot takes a while to get going which may turn some people away. Coupled with the way the show jumps into flashbacks without warning, it can be a little tricky to follow the story. Still, if you can persevere with this one there’s a really good crime mystery here and one of BBC’s strongest original series for quite some time.
The story begins with two cities, Beszel and Ul Qomas, occupying the same space in time but separated by a strange aura that makes the other city appear hidden to the naked eye, depending on which side of the border you’re standing. When a dead Ul-Qoman girl mysteriously appears is Beszel, it’s up to Inspector Tyador Borlú to find out what happened to her and stop whoever’s responsible. The four hour-long episodes see him travel across the border to Ul Qoma and back again, trying desperately to solve the case that rings eerily similar to the disappearance of his wife several years earlier. As the episodes progress, the slow-pace does pick up slightly as more revealing facts about his wife’s disappearance are divulged and answers begin trickling in. It’s at this point that the plot evolves to include lore around a possible third city nestled between the two existing ones resulting in Borlú changing his approach to the case.
There’s no denying that The City and the City is a little difficult to follow, especially with the way it approaches storytelling and there’s certainly some initial alienation as the plot moves forward and you struggle to adjust to the idea of 2 cities existing simultaneously in the same reality. What’s particularly fascinating with this series and partly what makes it easy to forgive the confusion surrounding the story is the excellent world building done here. There’s a clever use of lighting and colour used to separate the two cities; a sickly orange hue hangs over many of the scenes in Beszel with a colder, grey-blue used to illuminate Ul Qoma. This contrasting lighting really helps with some of the later scenes that involve back and forth conversations between the police in Beszel and those in Ul Qoma.
Unlike other BBC dramas that have a tendency to ham-fist a contrived message haphazardly into the dialogue, The City and The City builds a hate-fuelled world through the use of posters, colloquialisms and an uneasy tension throughout the series adopted by both sides of the border. In a way, The City and the City draws some parallels to the film Children Of Men with its presentation and attitude toward foreigners and propaganda and the show is all the stronger for it. There are sure to be people alienated by the style this BBC crime thriller adopts, especially with the confusing way the two cities merge and blend together requiring a lot of patience to truly grasp what’s going on. For those who can get invested in the world though, there’s a really good crime mystery here with a sprinkling of sci-fi that proves BBC can deliver the goods in what’s arguably one of their best new shows in quite some time.