Tangled roots of a family tree unravel

The BBC America drama 'Almost Strangers' chronicles a mysterious and intriguing three-day family reunion

By , Television critic of The Christian Science Monitor

It isn't often, but sometimes television can touch some native truth that resonates through us like a poem.

Almost Strangers, from English writer/director Stephen Poliakoff, chronicles one weekend in the life of a large modern family at a posh hotel in London. (The four-hour drama, for mature audiences only, airs on BBC America April 13, 8-11 p.m., and concludes April 14, 10-11 p.m., check local listings.)

The three-day affair is a reunion of strangers – connected by ties neither of affection nor of shared history. But, as the drama unfolds, buried history ignites affection and sheds light on personal mysteries.

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Mr. Poliakoff's storytelling is wondrous. He reveals character through anecdotes – flashbacks from the characters' past – and then shows us who they have become now. More important, the character of each storyteller is also revealed – his or her humanity, sensitivity, and insight.

"It's about people making connections, and that is ultimately a spiritual thing," says Poliakoff on the phone from London.

"It's about things not being completely materialistic, about love, about how we live with the memory of our parents, how we live with the memory of what we've done to other people – and if there can be a moment of epiphany, then that is a spiritual thing, too."

The hero is surveyor Daniel Symon (Matthew Macfadyen), who comes from the wrong branch of the family tree. He insists that his dad, Raymond (Michael Gambon), and mum attend the reunion – though he's not sure he wants to go himself.

There is a teasing, bullying intimacy between father and son that seems a tad sinister at the beginning, but by the film's end turns out to be affectionate male bonding. Raymond is the black sheep of the family. Having lost all his father's fortune, he is judged a failure by his relatives, and he dreads their condescension. It is only later that we learn what an admirable "failure" he has been.

At the reunion, Daniel meets long-lost cousins Rebecca and Charles, sister and brother, who scoop Daniel up in their company – and he falls hard for Rebecca. But the instant puppyish rapport among the three gives way under the weight of the siblings' secret sorrow.

Daniel is also struck by a beautiful older cousin, a good friend of his dad's, whose relationship with the siblings is strained. Alice was a surrogate mother to them – and to another brother whose name does not appear on the family tree.

During the course of the first night, Daniel's restless mother takes him to meet three elderly cousins – sisters – whose extraordinary story belies their conventional looks. When we learn how two of them survived World War II in the woods, feral children stealing from farm houses and hiding from adults, it becomes a story of faithful love between young sisters. Relating the sisters' story is part of Daniel's effort to rekindle his depressed father's interest in life after a severe illness. Storytelling itself, then, is an affirmation of life.

Many family stories make up this saga, and they all come together with amazing grace at the last party. We may come to this point having labeled each character knowingly (this woman is a selfish monster and that man is an opportunist) – and then Poliakoff upsets all our presumptions (the woman is lost in remorse for having failed someone she loved; the man is actually generous toward others).

There is so much more to each and every one of them than we have suspected. Poliakoff has made us rethink our own relationships. It takes great understanding to judge wisely.

This is not a new theme, but it is so deftly executed here that it comes as revelation. Every sentiment is earned; there is nothing cheap about these emotions.

"[With] long-form television, you can go on rivulets and tangents. That was very necessary for this story, so you didn't fall into melodrama with a revelation every 15 minutes," Poliakoff says. "I wanted it to be like you're there with Daniel. I wanted it to have a structure that would allow the audience to visit this reunion and let it speak for all sorts of families and be very particular as well. It's absorbing, but it gradually tightens its grip."

Working in long-form television has other benefits as well for this playwright and filmmaker: He has total artistic control.

Not restricting a TV story to one or two hours is like working on a novel, rather than a short story – you can do intimate and subtle things, he says. This story would be unfeasible in two hours, he adds. All the subtleties build a strong story of family without sinking into sentimental manipulation of the viewer.

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