The first of two standalone films starring Rowan Atkinson as the fabled French detective, Maigret Sets a Trap sees the plasticine-faced funnyman play it straight on the trail of a serial killer in 1950s Paris.

It’s a low-key performance in a boldly downbeat drama.

At the start of the film the brooding Maigret is stumped as four women of different backgrounds are murdered in similar fashion in quick succession on the narrow, winding streets of Montmartre. But as he’s about to be removed from the case by his would-be nemesis Judge Coméliau (Aiden McCardle), Maigret hits upon a cunning plan.

 

 

“The introspective detective is an unusual challenge for Atkinson.”

 

 

Reasoning that no self-respecting psychopath will stand for another person claiming the notoriety of his evil deeds, he feigns an arrest in order to flush out the killer.

Confident the murderer will try to strike again, Maigret places a dozen plainclothes policewomen trained in self-defence around Montmartre, and waits to pounce.

When the effete but shifty prime suspect Marcel Moncin (David Dawson) is eventually captured there’s little doubt about his guilt, but the story then takes a surprising turn as it explores the depths to which the women in his life will go in an attempt to prove his innocence.

 

 

Marcel has been mollycoddled into a fury by his domineering mother (Fiona Shaw) and saccharine wife (Rebecca Knight), and now the women are at loggerheads to prove their greater love for the delicate marionette.

Shaw excels as the polar opposite of Maigret, an irrepressible bundle of aggressive overprotection and skewed indignation.

 

 

“The seediness and optimism of post-war Paris are finely balanced… brilliantly capturing the era and the sleazy underworld of the original Georges Simenon novels.”

 

 

The introspective detective is an unusual challenge for Atkinson. “The odd thing about him as a character,” he declares, “is he’s not much of a character, he’s fairly bland. He hasn’t got a French accent or a limp or a lisp and he doesn’t love opera. He’s just an ordinary guy doing a slightly extraordinary job in a quite unpleasant world.”

Luckily, he notes, “I think I’m quite good at not doing very much on screen,” and his naturalistic performance is quietly convincing, not least in the scenes at home with Madame Maigret (Lucy Cohu), which are a picture of cosy, co-dependent domesticity.

The seediness and optimism of post-war Paris are finely balanced, with the faded grandeur of Budapest and some seamless trompe-l’oeil CGI brilliantly capturing the era and the sleazy underworld of the original Georges Simenon novels.

Executive Producer John Simenon, son of the author and guardian of the estate (who has a Hitchcock-like cameo at the end of the film), has also commended Atkinson’s pipe-smoking as the most authentic he has seen in any modern adaptation. The intelligence, wit and psychological insight of the novels also survive intact.

The one frustration Atkinson bemoans about the shoot is that as Maigret, whose other trademark trait is that he’s chauffeured or takes taxis everywhere, the renowned petrolhead never gets to drive any of the beautifully maintained vintage cars on the set. Tant pis, it really is best not to meddle with a classic, as this meticulous production makes plain.

The second film, Maigret’s Dead Man, still in post-production, promises still darker stuff as a series of odd phone calls draws the sleuth into a nest of violent thieves.

Atkinson is so far non-committal about continuing in the role for a longer spell, but it would be verging on the criminal if the producers were to let him get away.

 

Maigret Sets a Trap is on ITV on Easter Monday, 28 March at 9pm

Buy the original book by Georges Simenon in the Reader’s Digest bookshop

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