Best Interests review: BBC drama with Michael Sheen and Sharon Horgan is career-best for writer Jack Thorne
In Best Interests, Michael Sheen and Sharon Horgan deliver some of the best performances of the year in one of the best scripts of Jack Thorne's career too
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“TV has failed disabled people, utterly and totally,” argued Jack Thorne in 2021, delivering the MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh television festival. During his speech, he outlined failings both creative and practical at every level of production, from scripting to casting to filming, both individual and institutional, before calling for the film and television industry to radically improve in its representation of disabled people. It’s clearly something Thorne cares about deeply, and you can trace that thread through Thorne’s career since giving that speech, first with Then Barbara Met Alan’s activist history and now in his latest BBC One drama.
Best Interests opens with parents Nicci (Sharon Horgan) and Andrew (Michael Sheen) on their way back from a rare holiday. It’s not long after they’re back that their youngest daughter Marnie (Niamh Moriarty), who lives with a rare form of muscular dystrophy, develops a chest infection – a regular occurrence, clearly, from the shorthand Nicci and Andrew have to discuss what to do next – and they’re spending the night in hospital. For whatever reason, this particular infection is more severe than previous ones have been, and Marnie is placed on a ventilator. Nicci, Andrew, and their eldest daughter Katie (Alison Oliver) are all already on a first name basis with Marnie’s doctor (Noma Dumezweni), and spend night after sleepless night in front of the hospital vending machines.
Marnie’s condition quickly deteriorates further, and it’s not long before Dr Samantha recommends transferring her to end-of-life care. From there, Best Interests becomes something of a process story, examining step-by-step what follows when parents disagree with doctors about the appropriate course of treatment for a child: the early meetings, the move to mediation, an eventual court case and the media attention that comes with it. It feels both keenly observed – astute in its criticisms of how the case is covered in the public sphere, and how certain pressure groups attempt to take advantage of the families – and keenly felt, never losing sight of the complex and often contradictory emotions at the heart of it all.
It is, by some margin, one of Thorne’s best scripts: deft and sensitive, with a strong eye for details. Not just medical or legal, of course, but the much more important character details – Andrew and Nicci’s world feels lived-in, the story told with a real sort of clarity about who they are and their different reactions to the impossible situation they find themselves in. (And in other respects, too, the series feels grounded in a sense of time and place – in a flashback scene to Marnie’s first date, she’s on a cinema trip to see the Horrible Histories movie.) Coupled with Michael Kellior’s straightforward, uncomplicated direction – better to accentuate the lead performances – Best Interests quickly emerges as a clear creative achievement.
Best Interests is, of course, a show defined by its lead actors. Sheen and Horgan are fantastic together, each more than rising to the challenge set by the script; again, there’s a sense of depth that goes beyond what’s immediately on screen, years of both joy and hardship evoked with each tired glance or private joke or strained argument. In just a few scenes, Andrew feels as recognisable as any of the real people Sheen has played, while Horgan follows her tour-de-force performance in 2021’s Together with another demonstration of how talented a dramatic actor she is. It’s difficult to highlight any one scene as their best here – any given moment of kneejerk cruelty or raw vulnerability or loving happiness would do – but it is clear that, between them, Best Interests will be remembered for some of the best performances of the year.
It’s worth also drawing some attention to the supporting cast, in particular Noma Dumezweni, Alison Oliver, and Niamh Moriarty. Dumezweni impresses a great deal as Dr. Samantha, giving a generous supporting performance as a dedicated professional hiding her own grief, and it’s great to see Oliver in what amounts to a better showcase for her talents than Conversations with Friends was previously. Moriarty, though, is a particular standout, playing Marnie at different ages in a series of flashbacks – doing makeup tutorials online, going to the cinema, dancing with her sister – a device that lets Thorne and Moriarty make sure that Marnie is a character in her own right first and foremost, someone with her own story in the series rather than just a way to tell the story of the abled people around her.
“That notion of best interests has such complexity,” remarks one character during an early mediation meeting. Best Interests, if nothing else, is always deeply aware of that, and deeply invested in it too – in the complexity and the messiness of Andrew and Nicci and Kate’s reactions, extending a real empathy to them at every turn. It’s never as simple as, say, faith vs science, or denial vs listening to medicine: it’s informed as well by institutionalised ableism in medicine, or by the memory of the pandemic, so on and so forth. As a result, Best Interests feels delicate and sensitive rather than didactic or overwrought, willing to not just embrace but dwell in the complexity – not just one of Jack Thorne’s best dramas, but likely to emerge as one of the best of the year too.
Best Interests begins on BBC One on Monday 12 June at 9pm, with the second episode following at the same time on Tuesday 13 June. You can read more of our coverage of Best Interests here, and more of our TV reviews here. I watched all four episodes of Best Interests before writing this review.