Scene from McMafia

McMafia review – high finance in low places

The BBC’s new eight-part international thriller, McMafia, puts an Englishman, an Israeli and a Russian on a collison course – and that’s just for starters. Find out more in our first episode round-up

‘You’re a gangster?’ asks the beanpole beauty in a Tel Aviv nightclub. ‘Close,’ replies our hero Alex Godman (James Norton). ‘A banker?’ says the astute seductress, neatly summing up the BBC’s new globe-trotting drama McMafia like a Radio Times logline.

Say them quick enough and they sound the same – banker, gangster, banker, gangster. A better title for this tentacled and “ground-breaking” drama of international skulduggery would be Bangster – a better name, perhaps, than McMafia, which suggests a new meatball sub down the Golden Arches.

But the allusion is no mistake. McDonald’s is cited by shadowy Israeli businessman Semiyon Kleimon as the franchise model of choice for the sort of high-finance-high-crime collectives that operate outside norms, laws and borders. McDonald’s is the biggest because, well, it’s the biggest – simple as.

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Semiyon is trying to persuade straight-up Alex (born a Russian Jew but now effortlessly British in that polished-shoes-James-Bond way) to launder money in an attempt to restore the interests of Alex’s exiled family and Semiyon’s own Russian fortunes, stolen by ruthless oligarch Vadim Kalyagin.

Vadim is the man who, at the outset of this sprawling thriller, survived a car bomb attack in the Arabian peninsula, orchestrated by Alex’s uncle Boris. Boris wants back in with the Mother Country too but hasn’t got Semiyon’s sense of the patient prowl. This accounts for Boris’s decision to spark a run on his nephew investment fund with false rumours in order to push cash-strapped Alex into the arms of Semiyon and his dirty drugs money.

Scene from McMafia

McMafia stars Faye Marsay as Katya Godman and James Norton as Alex Godman. (Image: Nick Wall/BBC)

Semiyon (David Strathairn) plans to take down Vadim the understated, arm’s-length way – moving money into awkward places. Alex, with his dinner jacket and chiselled jowls and his plush London offices, is just the man to move the mouse and shift the moolah.

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‘I’m a banker not a gangster,’ protests Alex, in case we missed the beanpole’s nutshell in that earlier scene.

But, still, with Vadim putting Uncle Boris to the sword (or rather the caviar knife) and with Alex’s broken father next on Vadim’s to do (away with) list, Alex has little choice but to listen to the Israeli, however repellent the notion.

‘What does it take to corrupt you?’ That’s Little Miss Plotpoint again, lunging for a kiss that is swiftly repelled by the happily coupled Alex.

The answer comes quickly. For Alex heads to Versailles to meet Vadim face-to-face. Superficially he’s pleading for his old man’s life and for Vadim to cease hostilities. Really, he’s just buying time till he gets his million-dollar dirty ducks in a row.

Vadim offers him a tour of the Sun King’s palace. Which does he want to see first – the Hall of Peace or the Hall of War?

For all of McMafia’s intelligent complexity and elliptic exchanges, the writers are not shy of wielding a metaphor like a Russian thug with a caviar knife, or a beanpole with a pout.

The second episode of eight runs on Tuesday, January 2, at 9pm, BBC1. The first episode is available on iPlayer.

Giles BroadbentMcMafia review – high finance in low places

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