McMafia, episode 1 review: an intrigue-filled crime drama of global proportions

Gerard O'Donovan
James Norton as Alex Godman - BBC

Beyond its title, BBC One’s big-hitting New Year drama McMafiahas little to do with the scarily percipient book that Misha Glenny wrote a decade ago about organised crime’s increasing globalisation in the digital age.

But that’s no criticism of Hossein Amini and James Watkins’s glitzy international crime thriller which, inspired by Glenny’s non-fiction, proved a seductive piece of storytelling in its own right.

In the opening episode, McMafia wore its borderlessness on its sleeve, flitting between Doha, London, Moscow and Eilat, and a variety of languages, reflecting the global lifestyle of the modern businessman – and, it would seem, the modern criminal.

It never lost sight, though, of its reliably old-fashioned theme: the impossibility of escaping the past. Or your family’s past, if you happen to be Alex Godman (James Norton), the privileged, essentially English son of wealthy, London-based Russian émigrés.

Alex had never known anything other than the civilising influence of public school, business studies in the USA and the gilded life of a reputable hedge fund manager in the City.

McMafia: the real criminals who inspired the BBC drama

Until, that is, his dodgy Uncle Boris (David Dencik) ordered the assassination of the rival mafia kingpin Vadim Kalyagin (Merab Ninidze), who had driven the family out of Russia in the turbulent post-Communist era.

There were multiple twists and turns to the complex plot but suffice to say Alex had some big decisions to make regarding his future, and his family, by the time Uncle Boris ended up on a slab with a caviar knife in his neck.

Like Michael Corleone in The Godfather, it seemed that fate and the past had already made many of those decisions for him. But unlike that character, Alex’s father was a drunken, embittered wreck. Leaving Alex, for now at least, to make all the decisions himself.

James Norton and Yuval Scharf in McMafia Credit: BBC

One episode in, of eight, it is difficult to tell whether McMafia will scale the lustrous heights of the John le Carré adaptation The Night Manager or take a plunge into glossy melodrama like Sky One’s Riviera.

Norton walks a curiously stone-faced line between handsome hollowness and charisma as the somewhat inscrutable Alex. But there’s enough grit in his acting, and intrigue in the plot, to guarantee my place on the sofa for tonight’s follow-on.