Eddie Mottram (Mays) has just been released from prison on licence after serving 10 years for strangling his teenage girlfriend. He’s assigned to probation officer Paula Radnor (Friel), who helps him settle into his bail hostel and find a job. Paula has her own problems, though – she’s just returned to work after a three-month suspension because an earlier client, also a murderer out on licence, killed again while under her supervision. Her job’s on the line and she can’t afford to screw up again. Eddie, meanwhile, having pleaded guilty in court is now claiming he was innocent and only confessed to the murder at the time because the police had circumstantial evidence and put him under pressure.
Once Eddie has changed his story, he wants Paula to help him uncover the truth. He’s a pretty unpleasant guy – he starts dating a young woman at a garden centre where he’s started working but he lies to her about his past, he smashes up the bail hostel a couple of times and clearly has a big problem managing his temper, assaults his doctor and the hostel manager, ducks his curfew and even stalks Paula to her home. Somehow he’s found out about Paula’s previous mistake at the probation service and, using this against her (“you were given another chance”), pleads for another chance himself. She caves in.
Despite knowing Eddie’s broken pretty much all of his bail conditions at every step of the way, instead of reporting him to her boss Marion and getting his bail revoked Paula covers up for him, even while know she’ll get sacked on the spot if Marion (Ashbourne, woefully underused here) finds out. Paula does eventually believe Eddie after discovering his solicitors never bothered to do any of their own investigation 10 years earlier but advised him to plead guilty. She pledges to help him clear his name and, hopefully, uncover the real killer. Soon, her obsession with Eddie’s case takes over her life – she splits from her partner and starts lying to Marion herself about how she’s coping at work.
While Public Enemies starts off well enough, part gritty drama and part thriller (did Eddie kill or didn’t he?), it quickly, and disappointingly, descends into a mess. I say disappointingly because Tony Marchant has such a fine body of work under his belt – Holding On, Garrow’s Law, The Whistleblowers and TV screenplays for Great Expectations and the Canterbury Tales – and he seems to have lost his way here completely. Friel and Mottram both put in decent performances but are somewhat hampered by the patchy script. While Friel’s growing obsession with proving Eddie’s innocence is just about credible, but only just, towards the end Marchant suddenly throws in a budding romance between her and Eddie, which is just utterly ridiculous as they have zero sexual chemistry and a scene where Eddie crudely declares his lust for Paula falls badly flat. They are completely mismatched as lovers and their kiss as the credits roll lets down the entire drama not least because this is supposed to be a hard-hitting drama rather than a fluffy love story.
Marchant misses a trick in not exploring the miscarriage of justice further in how solicitors cut corners and fail their clients – this would have not only racked up the pace a bit and fitted in with the main story arc, it would have spared his audience from being asked to believe in an unbelievable relationship. Marchant’s other error is to waste too much time at the start in scene-setting. It ambles along too slowly for the first half but it’s as if in the last 20 minutes or so he realises he needs to wrap things up sharpish, at which point it bolts along too fast to the finishing line. The murderer is revealed, but not in a satisfying way at all, and you’re left feeling a bit short-changed.