When I think of Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison in “Prime Suspect,” I think of the perfect marriage of actress and material. Mirren brought the steel, wisdom, austerity, drive, and depression that were essential to the character, even if those qualities weren’t always embedded in the script. She gave us all the facets of a female detective fighting fiercely for respect among the sexist men in her homicide squad, with Jane growing wearier, lonelier, less by-the-book, and more obsessive across seven short, potent seasons. The costs of her job were high, but all along she cared deeply, sometimes showing a surprising tenderness toward the victims.
And the cases Jane was presented with were usually rich, infused with political and social issues such as sexual abuse, racism, and PTSD, as well as with blinding reflections of Jane’s own profound issues. Not that it mattered; Mirren was worth watching even those times when the writing wasn’t particularly extraordinary. She was spellbinding no matter what.
But alas, I can’t just go on and on here about Mirren and what may have been the best role of her career so far. I’m obliged to take a look at the new three-part “Prime Suspect” prequel called “Prime Suspect: Tennison,” which airs as part of PBS’s “Masterpiece” on Sunday at 10 p.m. Set in 1973, the series gives us the 22-year-old Jane, with Stefanie Martini taking over Mirren’s role to give us the tiger when she was a wee cub. Basically, “Prime Suspect: Tennison” answers a question — What was Jane like as a young cop? — that, given the reach of Mirren’s work, no one was asking.
If “Tennison” weren’t linked to the groundbreaking “Prime Suspect” series in any way, it would be a moody and mildly engaging police procedural, which the Brits often do so well. A drug-addicted 17-year-old prostitute is murdered, and our rookie WPC (Woman Police Constable) at the London station gets pulled into the investigation. Generally, she’s asked to do little more than wash the office dishes, but she has enough promise to catch the eye of her superior, Sam Reid’s DI Len Bradfield. He’s impressed by the clues she finds, as well as by the fact that she doesn’t vomit during the autopsy. She’s also beautiful, and Bradfield, something of a cold fish, takes note. There are drunken kisses, morning-after regrets, and office gossip, while the list of suspects expands.
Martini is all right — she gives us a mostly timid and, with her mother, even bratty Jane, one who is just beginning to find her will to succeed. But when you start to compare her to Mirren, which may be unfair but which is inevitable since they play the same character, she falls short. Not only is it hard to picture Martini’s face growing into Mirren’s face, it’s hard to imagine such a shallow character growing into Mirren’s complicated soul.
If Martini were playing a different character, if the “Prime Suspect” branding were not attached, that urge to compare would not distract, and Martini might have a chance to develop the role according to her own bent. But since she is Jane Tennison, her creative wiggle room is limited. Like the series, she is stuck in the shadow of a legend.
PRIME SUSPECT: TENNISON
Starring: Stefanie Martini, Sam Reid, Alun Armstrong, Ruth Sheen, Blake Harrison, Andrew Brooke. On WGBH 2, Sunday at 10 p.m.