Hulu’s latest prestige series looks good and features a powerful performance by its leading man, but isn’t anything we haven’t seen before.
In Hulu’s new original TV miniseries The Sister, we follow Nathan (Russell Tovey) as his life is upturned by Bob Morrow (Bertie Carvel), a figure from his past bringing disturbing news about the missing and presumed dead sister of his wife Holly Fox (Amrita Acharia). This delves into the supernatural and the psychological as Nathan desperately struggles to keep his life and his sanity together. What ensues is a perfectly watchable series full of twists and turns which never quite manages to maintain its tension.
This is a program which is drowning in the British prestige TV aesthetic – particularly with Chris Richmond’s production design. The central couple have an inexplicably large pristine and very modern house in the countryside which doesn’t feel lived in. Most of the scenes are shot at night and have a familiar twilight blue hue to them. Ben Wheeler’s cinematography is perfectly serviceable here, at times really capturing the nuances of Tovey’s performance, but for the most part it feels rote. The problem here is that the lack of a sense of place means that all the events taking place feel a little weightless. You’re clearly meant to be invested in the tragedy of the degradation of this ideal domesticity, but it’s hard to do that when there’s nothing unique about the place for you to hold onto.
In contrast with the setting, Tovey gives a layered performance as the leading man, excellently portraying the depth of his trauma. In flashbacks to a younger Nathan seven years beforehand, Tovey changes drastically. There’s more light in his eyes, the smiles feel genuine rather than forced, there’s a playfulness about him. The present-day Nathan is far wearier, there’s an intangible weight that’s always on his back. His acting is easily the best in the show and unsettles you in some really effective ways. At the same time, Neil Cross’ script never gives a real sense of who Nathan is as a person outside of the circumstances which he finds himself in, it’s all left to the (admittedly great) performance.
What ensues is a perfectly watchable series full of twists and turns which never quite manages to maintain its tension.
Opposite him, the lack of depth in Acharia’s character really shows. Her performance is reasonably good, and in her relatively limited time on-screen she manages to be sympathetic, especially in terms of the loss of her sister. However, she doesn’t get much time on screen to be anything other than grieving, or responding to Tovey’s haphazard attempts to protect her. The central conflict revolves around her and everyone is constantly talking about her – but she never gets to take control of the narrative and demonstrate any real internal life. It feels like she’s barely a person. What makes this worse is that her relationship with Nathan is unconvincing. Tovey and Acharia have a little chemistry but not much, and the shallowness of their characters makes it completely unclear as to why (beyond trauma) they would ever marry each other and sustain that marriage. Again, a huge part of the show is resting on you being invested in a relationship which Cross’ script fails to develop.
As the third lead, Carvel plays the paranormal expert Bob Morrow. Carvel does a pretty great job of finding both charm and menace in the same breath. He has a distinctive intonation and manner which really separates him from everyone else. Even with all that, his character is also shallow and inconsistent – especially when you get a clearer picture of his motivations towards the end of the show.
Looking more holistically, The Sister isn’t especially well structured. There are really intense and effective moments, with a thrilling cat and mouse dynamic between characters – especially in the back end. Ruth Barrett’s music is great and does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of both the horror elements and broader suspense. The problem is that those moments are stuck between scenes that drag and add very little of substance, as well as glaringly obvious red herrings. It feels like this should have either been a much deeper series which gave the characters more depth, or tightened to be a TV movie which is far more consistently intense.
In spite of its issues The Sister is still perfectly watchable. The performances are good enough. The filmmaking is good enough. Some are the twists are strong enough to keep your interest. I just wish this did more carve out its own identity, so it didn’t just feel like another ephemeral show filling space a streamer’s roster.
The Sister premieres on Hulu January 22nd.