In one way, “Place of Execution,” which premieres Sunday on PBS’ “Masterpiece Contemporary,” is a typical “cozy” mystery. There is a manor house involved and an assortment of colorful locals who may or may not have committed murder.
But the story, based on the book by Val McDermid, is more ambitious than that: In 1963, 13-year-old Alison Carter (Poppy Goodburn) walked away from that manor house and disappeared. The image of a beautiful young girl vanishing from a tiny, picaresque English village surrounded by the requisite but still dramatic wind-swept moor captivates George Bennett (Lee Ingleby), the young intellectual officer investigating the case, and, 45 years later, investigative filmmaker Catherine Heathcote (Juliet Stevenson).
Catherine is doing a story on the still compelling case -- Alison’s body was never found -- when Bennett, who went on to have a high-profile career, suddenly pulls out of the film. In an effort to understand why, and save her film, Catherine begins to dig and the cycle of mystery begins once again.
Told in alternate time frames -- the search for Alison occurs as Catherine is struggling to convince Bennett not to pull out, etc. -- “Place of Execution” is not terribly complicated as a mystery. The moment Greg Wise shows up as Philip Hawkin, Alison’s arrogant stepfather -- it’s his manor house -- with his formidable collection of haunting photographs of Alison, you do have to wonder why Bennett and his trusty Det. Sgt. Tommy (Tony Maudsley) are running around the village scaring up potential boyfriends. Yes, it’s 1963 and England has a class issue, but still. . . .
Fortunately, it’s the performances rather than the mystery -- which does have its twists -- that carry “Place of Execution.” Stevenson, who many will remember as Keira Knightley’s controlling mother in “Bend It Like Beckham,” is captivating as Catherine, a woman frayed to unraveling by the inexorable demands of her career and her own 13-year-old daughter Sasha (Elizabeth Day), who is pulling out all the stops to get her overworked single mother’s attention.
It’s a scenario we’ve seen before -- a mother too caught up in another child’s story to notice her own -- but Stevenson and Day bring such a perfect amount of exhaustion, exasperation, desperation and humor to their roles that the B plot almost runs away with the A plot.
But the initial investigation of Alison’s disappearance is disturbing and quaintly familiar. His face all but swallowed by horn rims, Ingleby’s Bennett is a diminutive and twitchy figure of a detective, chain-smoking and obsessive, certain from the beginning that this is not just another runaway. The length to which he will go to see justice done provides the crossroads of the two plots, with Catherine fighting to control her film just as Bennett fought to control his investigation.
Sitting in the center of it all is Hawkin, whom Wise (Willoughby in Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility”) imbues with all the handsome creepiness of a young Jeremy Irons. (Why Wise has not yet been asked to star in an American detective/medical procedural is the biggest mystery of all, but then maybe he has.)
“Place of Execution” comes to a conclusion that is an over-the-top take on a traditional cozy resolution. It’s a bit overmuch in plot but the performances, and of course the ivy-choked walls and Wellington-wearing villagers, carry it through.
‘Masterpiece Contemporary: Place of Execution’
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for coarse language)