Spoiler warning: this is a full review of Apple Tree Yard so if you’re spoiler conscious, please look away now!
Apple Tree Yard is an eye-catching thriller, adapted from the novel of the same name by Louise Doughty about Dr Yvonne Carmichael (award-winning Emily Watson) and dashing Mark Costley (Ben Chaplin). The pair meet by chance at the Houses of Parliament. She’s there to give a talk on her work in genetics. Why he’s there is never really explained. He bats his eyelashes at her and invites her to tour the secret chapel. That’s the magic words as within about 5 minutes of meeting they’re having sex! This is the very definition of a whirlwind romance.
This secret romance is a big deal to Yvonne. It’s all a bit grimy and sordid, but very exciting. She falls head over heels for a man she knows nothing about. It’s sort of a way to get her own back on her dodgy husband Gary (played by Mark Bonnar, an actor who seems to be in literally everything), but mainly to feel like an interesting and attractive middle-aged woman. I’d argue it’s the affair, not her Mr X as a person, that makes her feel good. It’s what it represents – the fight against aging and slowing down the inevitable invisibility as a desirable sexual woman. All this comes hot on the heels of her about to become a grandmother, and that’s surely no accident.
You can tell the source material is a book – Yvonne is our narrator, writing Bridget Jones style letters to her Mr X. She says he is the only person she can talk to about their affair. She’s loving the liberating thrill of sex in public places, London streets alleyways and various pub toilets (nice gastropubs though, as befitting the characters, not Wetherspoons). Mark has done this before it seems, but it’s all new to Yvonne. It’s not something that fits with her sober academic life. It’s impulsive and slightly foolish passion with no depth to it, no reality to pin it to her life. It’s a series of slightly weird and risky behaviours and is clearly not going to end well. No normal relationship has that much standing-up sex in it, and I’m not sure I could ever love someone who has never made me a cup of tea. She likes to think that Mark a spook. He doesn’t really say, and it’s all these omissions that make me worry he’s not trustworthy. Yet she places him on a pedestal as an idealised fantasy figure come to rescue her from her boring life.
So far, so romantic, if you like that sort of thing. Then suddenly Yvonne is shockingly raped by her college George who turns out to be a total creep. George says he knows she’s sleeping with someone else and threatens to tell husband Gary. She says later it’s like he could smell it on her. George seems to think that having sex with someone other than your husband, that makes you fair game. Ick. She is terrified, and rightly so, wanting to protecting herself from further physical harm but mainly protecting her affair. She is afraid of her reputation being damaged and her life becoming a morality play in court. Swiftly and thoroughly she destroys all the evidence and effectively covers up the rape. You want to yell at the tv that this terrible man can’t possibly be allowed to get away with it. Well, he does, but not for long.
There’s a great deal of sadness that she has no one more substantive, more real, to confide in than Mark. Yvonne is close to her daughter, but she is her pregnant protegé with plenty of other things to worry about. She is distant from son and jealous of his relationship with Gary. If she’d been able to pop the bubble of this affair, and look and things dispassionately then what follows might not have happened. Yvonne tells Mark that George raped her and is now stalking her and he needs to be taught a lesson. She drives Mark to George’s house and waits outside as he beats the man to death. Again, knowing what we do about George, it’s hard to be sympathetic to his bloody fate.
Yvonne’s husband Gary is easily written off as a bit of a wanker, but he comes in to his own during Yvonne and Mark’s trial. Mark Bonner’s speciality is angry outbursts and I’m happy to see him use his skills on the slimy barrister. With a very large sharp knife at the throat of this scuzzball he asks “Why didn’t you fight back?”. It’s an object lesson in self-preservation. Everyone who is attacked or raped should fight back – common sense, isn’t it? It’s not so clear or reasonable when you’re literally fighting for your life.
As with rape allegations in real life, Yvonne is subject to some really evil cross-examining. The prosecution lawyer undermines her testimony about her normal activities; physical contact with friends at a party, drinking, keeping her affair a secret. All quite reasonable, given the circumstances, but seen through the warped lens of a rape case it’s all used to make her – the victim- look suspicious and to damage her character in the eyes of the jury. Just as Yvonne predicted it would.
So she was guilty of silly risk-taking with Mark, and a bit gullible in living a fantasy life. Surprisingly, the court agrees with her. Mark is blamed for George’s death alone, and she is found not guilty. The verdict doesn’t seem to come as much of a relief as now she has to pick up the pieces. She’ll have to live with this terrible series of events, and who knows how it will affect her already rocky marriage and her family life. As she says, she will have to apologise for their affair every day for the rest of her life.
It was a realistic but not very satisfying ending. After the court case it sort of fizzles out. And then the last 30 seconds of pillow-talk between Yvonne and Mark puts a whole different spin on it. That was a cleverly hidden twist I did not see coming! All in all, Apple Tree Yard was good stuff, with important things to say about identity, aging, desire and guilt. The first two episodes could have been compressed into one which would have livened up the pace. The ending was very clever, but unfortunately not really worth the trudge to get there.
APPLE TREE YARD is released on DVD & Blu-ray Box Sets on Monday 20th February by Arrow Films.
Check iPlayer, as some episodes may still be available there.