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TELEVISION REVIEW

BBC's 'Crocodiles' is pointed social commentary

BBC America's ''Friends and Crocodiles" made me think of the writer D.H. Lawrence. As great and original as he was, Lawrence sometimes turned his characters into sharp instruments for his ideas. Rather than shape his people into well-rounded human beings, he built them as mere vessels for broader social, cultural, or natural concepts. The concepts were interesting enough, but they could overwhelm a novel's fragile psychological realism.

This new movie, written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff, forcefully charts the economy of the 1980s and 1990s from boom to bust. But the characters are quite secondary to Poliakoff's larger points about how dreams were born and how they died in two decades' time. Indeed, ''Friends and Crocodiles," tonight at 10, functions more successfully as a socioeconomic study than as an engaging story about a wealthy venture capitalist and his officious assistant. The characters border on unbelievable, despite the actors' best efforts.

Yes, the royals in Poliakoff's Emmy-winning ''The Lost Prince" represented the fading of the monarchy, but they were also vivid portraits. That balance was the movie's brilliance.

''Friends and Crocodiles" -- the mystery of the title is answered toward the end -- focuses on the odd business connection between Lizzie (Jodhi May) and Paul (Damian Lewis). In the early '80s, she is his secretary, sorting out his big ideas and arranging Gatsby-like parties at his estate. But their fortunes shift as the years pass, in ways that are meant to be loaded with significance. The dot-com bubble, corporate oversizing, and an Enron-like scandal all appear.

Paul and Lizzie's relationship is not romantic, and they argue passionately. Yet they are compelled to stay in each other's life. Paul is eccentric, drawn to sycophants, and effusively creative. And Lizzie is trying to channel his energy before he spirals down into anarchy. She even color-codes his messy office. But he is not a willing subject, and he continually bucks her sense of order.

Lewis and May do their best to bring depth. Lewis, so powerful in ''Band of Brothers" and ''The Forsyte Saga," brings a smug but bearable affect to Paul. And May's Lizzie is likable as she learns that emotionlessness is not satisfying. Alas, each actor is capable of more than this script allows.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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