Netflix review: “Foyle’s War”

Since the Foyle’s War mystery series has been broadcast in this country on PBS, all of you probably enjoyed it long before I did. But in case I’m not the last person in America to catch this excellent program, I’ll give my own viewer’s response here.

Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle (splendidly underplayed by Michael Kitchen) is chief detective in Hastings, England, during World War II. A sort of running joke in the series is that he desperately wants to do something “more important” for the war effort, but again and again is denied the chance, sometimes because there’s a case he feels he needs to see through to the end, and sometimes because his stubborn integrity makes him enemies in high places. Later on, when the war is winding down, he just wants to retire, but keeps getting pulled back in.

Foyle is a smallish, unprepossessing man, but steely in his character. He’s the kind of superior officer who can flay a subordinate alive without raising his voice. Nevertheless he’s very popular with his underlings, and has a sly, dry, sense of humor.

He is assisted in his inquiries by two regular supporting characters—Samantha “Sam” Stuart, his military driver (played by an actress actually named Honeysuckle Weeks, who’s not conventionally pretty but is nevertheless entirely adorable), and Detective Sergeant Paul Milner (Anthony Howell), an early war casualty with an artificial leg. Together they investigate at least one murder each episode, often connected to war profiteering, espionage, and military secrets. Foyle isn’t always able to arrest the sometimes well-protected culprits, but he does all he can and never gives up under any pressure less than direct orders. In such cases, he never leaves the stage without laying out the moral case.

I had a few quibbles. I thought too many plot points turned on coincidence (hard to avoid in this sort of project). Foyle tends to suffer from the common tendency of television detectives to never be wrong, even in his snap judgments (his social views are surprisingly progressive, too). The series often fell into Law and Order Disease, where all wealthy businessmen must be found guilty of something, even if they didn’t do the actual murder. It’s a wonder we won the war, when every industrialist was either profiteering or collaborating with the Nazis. On the other hand, they did break down in Season Five (if I remember the season correctly) and admit that Stalin was a bad guy, in an episode about Russian prisoners of war being repatriated to execution and the gulag.

One delight of the series, and a main reason I rate it so highly, is that the writers managed to do one uncommon thing—not in every episode, but every now and then. It’s not unusual in mystery stories to see initially appealing characters revealed as villains. But sometimes in Foyle’s War unsympathetic characters are revealed to have hidden depths of compassion and decency. That’s good character building, and I salute it.

My main quibble, frankly, is on a point that matters to no one but me. I’m speaking of hats.

It goes without saying that men of our generation don’t know how to wear a fedora. Apparently that goes for English costumers as well (though they’d call the hats trilbies). The two chief hat-wearing characters, Foyle and Milner, in the early episodes, appear to jam their hats on while holding them by the front brim, and then leave that brim in whatever configuration their fingers gave it. That provides the spectacle of flat front brims, crooked front brims, and even (major sin) upturned front brims. Foyle gets a different hat in the later series, and seems to bring the thing under control. But Milner continues to wear his brim every which way. This is particularly unfortunate in his case, because he’s a tall, thin guy with eyes close together, kind of like a caricature of Gregory Peck. A man who looks like that cannot get away with a funny looking hat.

But hats aside, it’s a pretty good crime series. As an extra pleasure, the churchmen in the series (Sam Stuart tells us all her uncles are vicars) are generally portrayed as decent and honest.


3 thoughts on “Netflix review: “Foyle’s War””

  1. My wife and I used to watch Law and Order, CSI, and other crime shows. I noticed a pattern even more annoying to me than the businessmen. The more a suspect spoke of his religious faith or the higher up in the church he was, the more likely he was to be the perp.

    It was one reason we stopped.

  2. My wife recently brought home the third season from the library and thus introduced me to Christopher Foyle. I am impressed with the depth of interwoven subplots and the philosophical portrayal of life in wartime England. The murders he investigates generally overlap with some other issue affecting the war effort, whether corruption in high places or petty philandering or black market activities.

    One thing I noticed in the five episodes I’ve seen. It appears that everyone is involved in some level of lawbreaking. Foyle must sort through many petty and not so petty offenses that often serve as red herrings to zero in on the serious, often having to overlook or not investigate some crimes in order to unveil the more dangerous criminals.

    On the one hand this reveals a worldview that recognizes the universality of sin. But rather than deal with it via the Biblical Christian response of redemption and forgiveness which recognizes the evil of sin but finds a way to overcome the darkness to bring restoration, the producers tend to minimize or even excuse wrongdoing, as long as it is petty or inconsequential or someone feels forced into it by their circumstances.

    I suppose that is one outcome of modern relativism. There is no right and wrong, only appropriate and inappropriate. However, such an arbitrary determination of what may be considered punishable behavior can lead to tyrannical and oppressive rule by those in power, bending the rules to fit their purposes. The result is an unworkable dichotomy of recognizing the waywardness of all people where everyone has something to hide while at the same time saying that everyone should have the power to say what is right and wrong for them. I don’t think the producers really see where their philosophy leads.

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