No, Hulu’s National Treasure doesn’t serialize the popular movie of the same name. It would be less disquieting to watch if it did.
National Treasure on the streaming service, where it becomes available Wednesday, tells the uncomfortable fictional story of a well-liked British comedian who at the age of 66 is accused of sexually assaulting several women over 30 years.
The comedian, Paul Finchley, is played with an eerie combination of calm and wariness by Robbie Coltrane, who may be best known in the U.S. as the rather more benign Hagrid in the Harry Potter films.
The immediate temptation for American viewers might be to think National Treasure springs from the story of Bill Cosby, a much-loved comedian who is currently on trial in the wake of multiple sex assault allegations.
The producers acknowledge the story was inspired by real-life cases, but as it’s a British production, Cosby wasn’t one of them. Rather, it draws on the sensational British cases in which DJ/comedian Jimmy Savile and entertainer Rolf Harris were accused of repeated sex assaults.
Savile had died by the time the allegations against him were assembled and widely believed credible. Harris was tried, convicted and imprisoned.
When Finchley first hears the allegations against him in National Treasure, he denies them and bitterly mutters that the media is trying “to make me into Jimmy Savile.”
It turns out to be a lot more complicated than that, and the four-part series offers no easy answers and no quick charge/trial/verdict wrapup.
Rather, it lingers on the way the charges explode into the life of Finchley and then seep into the lives of those around him.
That includes his wife Marie, a woman whose bottomless Catholic faith turns out to be the only way she endured decades of suffering to an unfaithful husband, and their daughter Dee (Andrea Riseborough), who is badly damaged from years of drug abuse.
The impact falls most heavily on them, because Finchley seeks unequivocal and unquestioning support as his situation feels ever-more dire. The second episode focuses on Dee, the third on Marie.
To a lesser extent the tentacles of the case also impact Finchley’s long-time comic partner Karl Jenkins (Tim McInnerney) and his attorney Jerome Sharpe (Babou Ceesay).
Because the focus falls on Finchley’s side, it’s the fourth episode before we really meet the first accuser who came forward, Rebecca Thornton (Kate Hardie), and babysitter Christina Farnborough (Susan Lynch), who says Finchley assaulted her when she was working for him.
National Treasure explores questions that always surface in these cases, like why the accusers waited so long to speak up and how money and celebrity can serve as insulation against sanctions on bad behavior.
The show spends more time, however, on a darker, more complicated and more disturbing part of the story, which is why Marie, in particular, stayed with him through years of neglect and infidelity.
Coltrane gives a fascinating portrayal of Finchley himself, painting much of that picture with small subtle gestures and moments behind a well-honed public mask of polite, rational calm.
He clearly has serious inner problems, ranging from envy of his partner to the insecurity of fearing that not even the prostitutes he pays for time and attention really care about him.
Despite considerable apparent success and popularity, his life has a grey hollowness and he seems to know it.
Whether that has fueled an inner frustration or rage that would lead him to rape young women is the question, of course, and National Treasure divulges no answers prematurely.
It’s not quick or easy to watch. It’s also not easy to forget.