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Television

Review: BBC America’s ‘Thirteen’ looks at a life stolen

Jodie Comer as Ivy in “Thirteen.”
Jodie Comer as Ivy Moxam in “Thirteen.”
(Simon Ridgway/BBC America)

“Thirteen,” a quietly compelling, five-part miniseries premiering Thursday on BBC America, concerns Ivy (Jodie Comer), a 26-year-old woman who has spent half her life abducted. As the story begins, she opens a door and runs.

(Insert mention of “Room,” the film of the book; "Family,” the canceled ABC series; and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” the comedy made from similar premises. Continue.)

Although it is caught up in the way the past informs the present and memory feeds identity, “Thirteen” unfolds in the here and now; there are no flashbacks, and little in the way of back story. We see how people are, but not how they got that way; and how they are remains a not wholly settled question.

Indeed, the series is remarkable as much for what it avoids as for what it shows. There is no social commentary, no sermonizing. The tabloid press, which makes its expected disruptive appearance, is dismissed almost with a shrug. There is a psychologist, but little in the way of psychologizing.

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Ivy’s mother (Natasha Little) frets over the smallest disturbance of the 13-year-old status quo; she restores not just Ivy’s room, but the semblance of a family -- Ivy’s father (Stuart Graham), who has been living out of the house with a girlfriend, is called home to pretend that nothing has changed.

Younger sister Emma (Katherine Rose Morley) is convinced, at first, that Ivy is not who she says she is. As it evolves, theirs is the series’ most affecting among several well-drawn relationships, including those between Ivy and an old crush (Aneurin Barnard), a wilder school friend (Eleanor Wyld), and a sympathetic police detective (Richard Rankin), who is matched with a more suspicious one (Valene Kane). (The detectives have their personal business as well; there is a lot of personal business.)

With her triangular face and wide-set eyes and her long, lank, untidy hair, Comer, who is 23, has something alien, fairylike and uncanny about her; she’s shot, at times, like a rumpled Renaissance angel. In early scenes, out of the cellar and back in the world, it’s as if her body is adjusting to a different sort of gravity, her breath to a new atmosphere. Her wariness shapes the space around her.

Comer plays Ivy as a person going in and out of focus, and much of the suspense – more than that of the police procedural this character study contains – resides in just wanting to see what she does or says next, as she seems to grow before our eyes from child to adolescent to woman. It’s an all-in, all-out performance composed almost entirely of small moments, always magnetic yet never extravagant.

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There are some commonplace dramatic elements, to be sure. In the name of urgency – mild spoiler – the kidnapper kidnaps again. There is some traditional action packed into its climax. And there are times when the drama feels, not false exactly, but a little engineered; but it is never fatal.

The production is stylish but not aggressively so, dream-like and pretty in a slightly downbeat way. For a crime story it is unusually gentle and generous toward its characters; it is not cynical or despairing – indeed, it is in the end a love story, or rather, several interlocking love stories set in contrast to the pathological mockery of one. That the series’ creator, Marnie Dickens, and its directors, Vanessa Caswill and China Moo-Young, are all women may or may not have something to do with this, but it seems worth pointing out that they are.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

‘Thirteen’

Where: BBC America

When: 10 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)


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