Review: ‘Silk’ renders British court drama with conviction

“The Good Wife” meets “Law and Order: U.K.” in “Silk,” a six-hour, three-episode series premiering on PBS’ “Masterpiece Mystery!” on Sunday night.

As host Alan Cumming helpfully explains in the first-night introduction, “Silk” refers to the prestigious position of Queen’s Counsel: In British court, these high-ranking barristers wear gowns of silk (also those crazy wig hats).

Applying for silk is one Martha Costello (Maxine Peake), a passionate defense barrister who has made the law her life. Idealistic yet pragmatic, professionally fearless yet personally vulnerable, Martha firmly believes that providing a strong defense for even society’s worst is the keystone of justice.

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“The most important words in law are ‘innocent until proven guilty,’” she tells Nick (Tom Hughes), the callow but light-fingered student assigned to her in the premiere episode.

Before she can make silk, however, she has to impress the powers-that-be while negotiating the power politics of Shoelane Chambers. In Britain, barristers, who argue matters in court, are hired by solicitors, who oversee criminal cases. Instead of a law firm, these barristers work in groups called chambers overseen not by senior partners but by “senior clerks.” If nothing else, “Silk” provides a primer to the British law system in a way that “Law and Order: U.K.” never does.

At Shoelane, case assignments are made by Senior Clerk (pronounced clark) Billy Lamb (Neil Stuke). It’s Billy’s job to keep the chamber financially afloat while advancing the careers of those in his care. He currently has two horses in the race for silk — Martha and the charming but wily Clive Reader (Rupert Penry-Jones). who has all of Martha’s determination and none of her sense of fair play.

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It’s not as predictable as it may sound. Creator Peter Moffat (“Criminal Justice”) is a playwright and a former barrister — and it shows.

Narratively and thematically ambitious, each episode of “Silk” follows at least two hot-button cases — drug mules, young prostitutes, non-stranger rape and the like. Meanwhile, it also explores the dilemmas of a defense barrister and the perils of being both true to one’s self and professionally successful.

More important, Moffat and his very deep bench of talented performers create characters that defy expectation and grow in complexity with each episode. Martha may be more than a little super-heroic in her ability to win against the odds, but her combination of warmth and brittleness transcends the tired trope of a woman whose professional success has come at a personal cost.

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“Silk” deals frankly with the sexism and classism that still hold sway in Britain. However, where an American show would go big, broad and outraged, “Silk” keeps everything confined within a more normal range of human reaction.

Woven through it all are strands of seemingly archaic British tradition that both supports the legal system and binds it into crippling contortions. The horse-hair wigs and fancy dress robes, the use of “Miss” and “Sir” may seem quaint and charming. However, they symbolize an uneasy attachment to the past, which is not necessarily a fine and noble thing for all that it’s made of silk.



‘Masterpiece Mystery!’

Where: KOCE

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

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