The Hamburg police arrest an international businessman, charging him with smuggling heroin from Pakistan. While he's on trial, his trophy wife, a former Olympic swimmer, discovers steely ... See full summary »
The Hamburg police arrest an international businessman, charging him with smuggling heroin from Pakistan. While he's on trial, his trophy wife, a former Olympic swimmer, discovers steely ruthlessness within herself. In Pakistan, the British home minister tours the poppy-eradication project and returns to London to find that his daughter is a heroin addict. While trying to save her, and helped by a crusading attorney, he learns the limits of government policy. Fazal, a peasant burned off his land where he farmed poppies, goes to Karachi and works for Tarik Butt, a murderous drug lord. Fazal's frankness and sense of worth are his strength and his liability. Stories cross and collide. Written by
Television so so good not even America's greatest director could top it.
'Traffik', despite its title, is not really about drugs. In the best tradition of crusading British TV drama, 'Traffik' analyses and moralises about its ostensible subject, which is not some mythical scourge, but a matrix or process with identifiable social, economic and historical roots, causes and effects. There is something almost scientific in the way the film takes four sets of characters from spectacularly separate global and class backgrounds - a poppy grower forced into the Pakistani underworld by poverty and a cynical government; the English, ex-Olympic swimmer wife of a drugs baron on trial for trafficking; two shambling German policemen whose determination to convict the latter arises as much from class anger as any faith in the law; and a Tory junior minister whose Cambridge-student daughter has become an addict.
'Traffik' is unapologetically didactic - from the early scenes of Jack Lithgow in Pakistan, investigating the government's success in eliminating drugs before sanctioning more British aid, we are bombarded with facts about the problem. But these 'facts' come from a variety of sources - dissembling government representatives; left-wing lawyers with vested (ideological and domestic) interest in the corruption; poor farmers who need to grow poppies to survive.
Facts, normally reassuring markers on a map, are clearly not enough - the more facts we get, the less controllable the situation seems. It is not until Jack, the film's moral centre, the man who connects all the narrative threads, actually journeys into the heart of the drugs darkness, learns to shed his tory hypocrisy (deploring the use of drugs, but refusing to put any serious money into tackling the problem, and creating the conditions, through various free market initiatives, where drug-traffiking flourishes. Just as the anti-heroes of the old Warners' gangster films were actually model American capitalists, so the traffikers are the ideal being espoused by Thatcher and Reagan) that at least the reality of the problem can be acknowledges.
Like I say, 'Traffik' isn't really about drugs. As Jack finally recognises, after being sacked as a Tory minister, drugs isn't really the problem. It's a society dismantled by a woman who said there was no longer any such thing (as proved by Jack's non-existent family life), systematically depriving the vast majority of people of hope and happiness, increasing numbers of whom turn to drugs.
What is most frightening about 'Traffik' is not the graphic, numbing depictions of drug abuse (the technical detail of which ironically reflects the presentation of more 'legitimate', verbal factual information), but the dystopian vision of a Britain stripped of any joy, beauty or community, a bleak wasteland of derelict tenements and soulless modernity, a society of defeatists ready for the thatcherite smugglers and barons to ply their trade.
This isn't just a contemporary British story - it records the decline of an Empire built on trade reduced to lawless drug traffiking. It is surely significant that the other sites in the programme are Germany and Pakistan, crucial agents in the Empire's decline. Here the old imperial amorality comes home to roost, the formerly enslaved victims, their bodies abused by their masters' power, returning to the Imperial centre, London, the seeds of its decline literally carried in their bodies, embodying the fears of all those late 19th century gothic novels.
'Traffik' is one of the great achievements of British TV, and is in many ways superior to the recent Hollywood remake. The political focus is obviously sharper - Jack's decline is much more effective than Wakefield's because he, as agent of government policy, as well as a bad father, is very much part of the problem, whereas the American's only real political flaw is complacency. In almost every case, characterisation is tighter and much more plausible (compare Lindsay Duncan's steely Helen, already bitten by experience and failure, and her risibly superficial counterpart).
Unlike the dubious racial undercurrent of 'Traffic' (making Mexico dark and Other; the ultimate WASP horror being sex with a black man), the portrait of Pakistan is richly, tragically drawn, with disconcerting arguments about drug protection punctuated by scenes of gruesome violence. Throughout, the inextricable linking of public and private is expert. Visually, the film is remarkably inventive, without ever being flashy or 'cinematic' - especially in the last episode, where the buildings and decor seem to move as the system closes in. If 'Traffik', like its remake, feels the need to shore fragments, then the prevailing sense of waste and loss is much more damning, Jack's speech bitterly despairing.
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