TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In the new British-made thriller "The Tourist," Irish actor Jamie Dornan plays a man who wakes up in the Australian outback with no idea who he is. The six-part series drops on HBO Max tomorrow. Our critic-at-large John Powers says it made him laugh while it kept him guessing.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Ever since the birth of mass communications, our culture has been haunted by the idea of amnesia. In high-class books by the likes of George Orwell or Milan Kundera, forgetting becomes a political metaphor for the erasure of truth. Things are less ambitious in pop entertainments like "Memento" or the Jason Bourne series. There, memory loss is less a metaphor than a motor, a gimmick to drive the story forward. This motor purrs like a Ferrari in "The Tourist," a hit BBC series playing on HBO Max. Written by the Williams brothers, Harry and Jack - best known here for "The Missing" and "Baptiste" - this funny, suspenseful six-part thriller doesn't merely keep us guessing; it keeps its amnesiac hero guessing, too. He knows even less about his own story than we do.
A bearded, muscled-up Jamie Dornan stars as a T-shirt-clad Irishman who gets in a car accident and winds up in a small-town hospital in the Australian outback. Known simply as The Man, he doesn't know who he is or how he got there. But soon after he leaves the hospital, he knows one thing for sure - somebody wants to kill him. As he seeks to find out who's after him and why, he's helped by two very different women. Luci, played by Shalom Brune-Franklin, is a waitress who is foxy in every sense. We aren't quite sure what to make of her. In contrast, it's easy to trust probationary constable Helen Chambers, played by Danielle Macdonald. Helen's a newbie cop who struggles with her weight and with a fiance who speaks of her appearance with such passive aggressive meanness that I kept hoping he'd become one of the show's murder victims.
While the man's search for his identity is grippingly plotted, the show lets the action breathe. It takes the time to enjoy his encounters with a wide range of oddball types. Meet a goofy chess-playing pilot, a Greek mobster, the affably nutty woman who offers him lodging - or the enormous, cowboy-hatted hitman, who has the self-satisfied theatricality of an escapee from a Tarantino movie. The Man knows he must keep moving to stay alive. Here, early on, he hobbles out of the hospital to follow his only clue, a piece of paper containing the details of a meeting. As a good cop, Helen tries to stop him.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TOURIST")
DANIELLE MACDONALD: (As Helen) She's right. You can't just leave.
JAMIE DORNAN: (As The Man) Or what, you're going to stop me?
MACDONALD: (As Helen) You've just been in a car accident.
DORNAN: (As The Man) I have been lying here, waiting. For what? I have nothing. I have no name, no home, no clothes. The ones they've given me probably belonged to a dead guy.
MACDONALD: (As Helen) You can't just go waltzing into the limbo of the red earth with nothing but a piece of paper in your hand and expect things to go well for you.
DORNAN: (As The Man) It's all I have. The note said, 2:30, today. Whoever I'm meeting can tell me who I am.
POWERS: Now, for all "The Tourist's" inventiveness, Episode 5 is a trip. It reminds us that even good pop culture is often derivative. The show's opening car crash sequence mimics the Steven Spielberg movie "Duel." More importantly, the Williams brothers are pretty clearly doing a Down Under riff on "Fargo." Their series offers the same blend of violence and barbed humor, the same mythologizing of bleak, underpopulated places, and the same cavalcade of viciousness and folly that brings out the heroism in an ordinary person.
The show's moral center is Helen, who, in Macdonald's sensational performance, has our sympathy from the get-go. Her work is so scene-stealingly (ph) good that I would call this a career-making performance if I hadn't already said that about Macdonald's electric work as an aspiring New Jersey rapper in the indie film "Patti Cake$." Helen's transparent goodness makes her the perfect counterpoint to The Man, a handsome hunk who's a mystery, even to himself. It's a great role for Dornan, who, earlier in his career, had a slightly synthetic prettiness that made him ideal for creepy characters, like the S&M billionaire in "Fifty Shades Of Grey."
Here, he's a bit older, thicker and rougher. And just as Brad Pitt often seems liberated when his good looks are masked a bit, Dornan gives his best performance as a man who, like David Copperfield, isn't sure whether or not he's the hero of his own life. Over the course of the six episodes, the man struggles to learn whether back before his accident, he was a good guy or a bad guy. And if he had been a villain, does he have to stay one even after he starts remembering his past? I won't reveal what he discovers. Though, I feel obligated to say that you won't get a definitive answer this season. You'll have to watch Season 2 of "The Tourist," not yet made, which I bet you'll be more than happy to do.
GROSS: John Powers reviewed "The Tourist," which begins streaming on HBO Max tomorrow. After we take a short break, film critic Justin Chang will review the new movie "The Batman." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BENNIE MAUPIN QUARTET'S "PROPHET'S MOTIFS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.