Part 1 concerns a young man, Ben Coulter (Ben Whishaw) who one night takes his dad's cab out in order to meet some friends. While the cab is stopped, a young woman named Melanie (Ruth Negga) gets in and wants to go to the seaside. Ben decides on a whim to take her. At the end of the evening, the two wind up at her place and have sex. The next morning, Ben wakes up in the kitchen. He goes upstairs, dresses, and tells Melanie he is going. Then he realizes she's dead and there's blood everywhere. Panicked, he rushes away, only to return to try to get rid of any sign that he was there. He's ultimately picked up, questioned, and later arrested for murder. Ben doesn't remember a darn thing about what happened.
This is a very good miniseries, a little too packed in the last episode, but an excellent indictment of not only the justice system but the prison system, as the frightened Ben endures abuse and bullying from seasoned prisoners. He soon learns that even the guards are run by one prisoner, Freddie Graham, a terrifying man who manages to get everyone in his debt and then forces payback.
Not that outside the prison, things are much better. Ben's father gets him high-prized solicitors who have no interest in Ben and just want to make a deal, and a barrister (Lindsay Duncan) who insists on a self-defense plea. Ben finally goes back to his original attorney, a public defender, a no-nonsense guy (Con O'Neill) who wants Ben to play the courtroom game but wants the truth as well.
Ben's plight and Whishaw's sensitive performance are more than enough to hold interest. What's best about Ben is how he matures from the first to the last episode. Fantastic work. There is one shot of him and Melanie, sitting on the other side of an amusement park, in the dark, looking at the brilliant lights from the rides, two young people, enjoying life with everything in front of them. It's quite sobering.
The rest of the acting is top-notch. Con O'Neill as Stone, the public defender, is wonderful as a streetwise solicitor with a husky voice and a big heart; Lindsay Duncan as a no-nonsense barrister who wants to cut to the chase; Pete Postlethwaite as Hooch, Ben's cell mate, a lifer who is there to protect Ben but has his own turmoil; and Bill Paterson as the gentle-speaking detective, Harry Box. That's only a few, but everyone is marvelous.
The last episode is almost done in shorthand, packing in a ton of information and referring to incidents rather than showing them. And you have to watch and listen closely, or you'll be asking 'what happened'. Pay close attention.