In recent years, ITV’s commitment to adapting every British true crime story has drawn them away from the film’s gritty heaviness Stefanabout the murdered student Stephen Lawrence and Ofa look at the capture of serial killer Dennis Nilsen, all the more eccentric: hatton garden, about a gang of vintage cars robbing London’s diamond district and their successful show, quizthe story of the coughing major continues Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Where will this creative obsession end? A terrifying full-length reconstruction of the life of the guy who shoved a flare up his ass at the EURO final? A forensic six-part on the origin of the litter box lady?!
The thief, his wife and the canoe is the latest installment in the ITV campaign to dramatize all crimes committed in the UK, however mundane. It tells the story of John and Anne Darwin, played by top TV talent Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan, a Hartlepool couple who made headlines in the 2000s after John faked his death in a canoeing accident. John is a dreamer, a man who, in the words of his wife (who narrates the whole story), ‘would buy a Range Rover he couldn’t afford and then spend £3,000 on a personalized number plate; all before we connected the gas”. But those endeavors get him in hot water – and then the very cold waters of the North Sea – as debt mounts and his opportunities dwindle.
The fact that John Darwin will always be known to the press and the public as “Canoe Man” demonstrates, if not fully, the absurd quality of it sacrificelessthen sure disembodied, crime. But writer Chris Lang understands that audiences can’t be expected to sympathize with anonymous insurance companies, so the conflict revolves around the couple instead. Marsans John is a Walter Mitty-style bully who forces his wife into the plan. “I’d really rather end it all than face the shame of bankruptcy,” he tells her while forcing her into his bewildering act, “I just couldn’t take it.” Dolan’s Anne thus becomes a recalcitrant one participant in the list. “No one stands in line for a woman like you, Anne,” he tells her on the eve of his departure, leaving the audience begging her to weigh down the canoe with stones.
Marsan – who, let’s face it, looks like no one else on earth than Eddie Marsan – gives John a clownish physicality. Emerging from the waves in a tight-fitting wetsuit, the buffoon looks like an evolutionary stage somewhere between man and shellfish. Dolan, meanwhile, fills Anne with buttoned-up anger: her reluctance to go along with the plan gives way to a mania for frustration as things spiral out of control. But for all the punch-and-judy elements and the inherent comedy of the set-up (John returns to live in an adjoining room and slips into his former home for morning bratwurst via a coffin-shaped connecting passage), The thief, his wife and the canoe never catches fire. Contrasting the ridiculous crime with a somber portrayal of a manipulative, controlling relationship doesn’t work: both sides of this drama feel strangely unsatisfying. Not funny enough to lean into his dark comedic references, but not serious enough to say anything about domestic violence.
“This is the life I really want,” John tells Anne as he sits alone in a bed playing dirty video games, “with you.” The Darwins’ lives in Hartlepool before they manage to venture to the more exotic climes Escape Panama has a poignant Bathos quality. But as the drama and Anne’s life unravel, the extraordinary everydayness of the crime and its perpetrators gives way to something darker and more procedural. It’s hard to see the grieving (but not grieving) Anne cry out in tears into the raging waves off Seaton Carew without asking: Did the canoeman’s story have to depress me so much?
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/reviews/the-thief-his-wife-and-the-canoe-eddie-marsan-b2058291.html The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe Review: Did the story of the “Canoeman” really leave us so depressed?