Movie Rated: 18+
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Digital Premiere Date: 10 July 2020
What makes for a truly gripping courtroom drama? Is it the big reveal of a corrupt judiciary? Is it the plot twists that come every second to throw you off whomever you thought was guilty? Some of the greatest courtroom dramas (movies or shows) have either been those where no one is what they seem, or where you are more invested in the human story behind those who sit in their robes behind wooden tables. In the 1957 film 12 Angry Men (now regarded as a classic), we were forced to look at the jury deliberation process. As ‘Juror 8’ tried to convince his fellow members that the case they are looking into isn’t as straight-forward as we imagine, it was clear that even the most unbiased juries carry with them the weight of their own opinions and indiscretions.
What is the Story About?
The Flemish show De Twaalf (or The Twelve) which premiered on television last year, and just made it to Netflix, takes these two elements of a good courtroom drama and puts them together. No one is what they seem, you won’t know who did it till the end (and perhaps not even then), and you may be more invested in the human story behind ‘the twelve’ - a group of unrelated individuals presiding the case - all of whom bring in their personal burdens into the courtroom.
In a court case that has shocked Belgium, Frie Palmers stands in court accused of two murders - one in 2000, of her best friend Brechtje, and the other in 2018, of her young daughter Roos. But the show starts off with a mother of three heading to court to see if she has been picked as a juror for the case. She is clearly uncomfortable when her name is called out as ‘alternative juror,’ and we know that her jury duty will have repercussions in front of her insensitive and unhelpful husband. That is Delphine but she is only one of 12 people whose lives will be revealed to us. There’s Yuri who witnesses an accident at his construction company. Arnold is trying to come to terms with his life as Holly emerges as an unlikely leader of the group. Carl is trying to reconcile with his daughter and Noel is dealing with an addiction. Each episode of The Twelve is named after a juror (or some other players who are key to the double murder), as it reveals more details about their lives and how what happens in the background can never be completely exclusive to Frie’s fate.
There is no doubt why this show was broadcast on television because it is not meant for binge streaming. The Twelve isn’t a particularly upbeat watch. Now don’t get me wrong, there isn’t much that is upbeat about crime. And the crime here is rather sordid. But the realism route taken by the creators may have gone to such an extreme that it feels much less a drama and much more a documentary. For the kind of heaviness that is packed in in every episode, the audience would feel certain exhaustion after a while, and I either imagine this putting them off completely or perhaps to get back to it on a later date.
What The Twelve does have going for it is that it is an astutely observed character drama as well as a classy whodunnit. Frie is the obvious suspect, especially to the second murder. But there are plenty of other people who have a motive. There’s her ex-husband Stefaan, whose story doesn’t fit. Stefaan’s insecure new wife and her indignant mother. There’s an investigation officer who seems to want Frie behind bars because she may have been bought by the first victim, Britt’s, father. The way the show is written is that new evidence surrounding both murders are uncovered each episode and so, it really only adds up (kind of) in the finale. As all the jurors sit together and deliberate, we deliberate with them, and the intrigue remains till the last moments of the season.
Simultaneously, the show has immense complexity when dealing with multiple storylines of all its jury members and how their troubled lives (in flashbacks) and its aftermath relates to what happens at court. The only rule of a jury is to be completely unbiased, and for most of the show, they seem prejudiced and compromised. The show creators have mentioned how it took almost four years to meticulously research jury duty in Belgium, and it shows. Their personal and dutiful lives mesh well enough in the screenplay that your biggest takeaway would be to balance the good and bad of the system.
But in the attempt to delve so deep into these people, The Twelve becomes a little wearisome. The show is already heavy with themes of isolation, abuse, violence, addiction, and separation, and it runs at 10 episodes. There are character narratives that don’t go anywhere, neither do they require that much context. The home lives of some of the jurors are melodramatic in comparison to the court scenes. As the name suggests, some of the twelve are given more screentime than the murder, and perhaps that isn’t in the show’s favour because it could have wrapped up all its loose ends in a six-part miniseries. There are many points where you feel burned out.
The Twelve is a proper ensemble cast with almost every member getting enough of an arc to shine in their roles. The documentary-style feel of the show is consistent that the directors have managed to extract a vulnerable and raw realism from their actors. The most notable (and perhaps most prominent) performances are by Maaike Cafmeyer as Frie, Johan Heldenbergh as Stefaan, Maaike Neuville as Delphine, Piet De Praitere as Noel, and Charlotte De Bruyne as Holly.
The sheer novelty value of The Twelve is a highlight. How these people are oddly put together by a ballot and how their humanity is questioned with each detail about the case unpacked is intriguing enough.
The show is marketed as a ‘slow-burn,’ even mentioned as a tag on its Netflix page. And it certainly is one. But it’s also very heavy and I can’t imagine you going through the entire season without losing a bit of patience, or even some points where you just get bored of all the conversation.
Music and Other Departments
Both to share more details on the murder, as well as juror backgrounds, the writers use off-sequence flashbacks that confuse the audience. This is a great narrative technique for a whodunnit. The cinematography is also gritty and real, adding to that docudrama feel. There is a minimal score, and it too is very gloomy.
Did I Enjoy It?
Partly. I wanted to know what happens at the end but was given no room to breathe in between.
Do I Recommend It?
Yes, but perhaps not as a binge-watch. If you can’t get through the first episode, skip it. If you can, you will enjoy it.