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TELEVISION REVIEW

Strangers whose lives collide make an emotional journey

Kate Ashfield and Douglas Henshall star in the PBS miniseries “Collision.’’ Kate Ashfield and Douglas Henshall star in the PBS miniseries “Collision.’’ (
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By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / November 14, 2009

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Forcing together disparate characters through a highway pile-up has been done before, most recently in “Crash.’’ And it can be an effective device when it comes to capturing the random nature of existence, how both disasters and gifts can come out of the blue and alter everything despite our most elaborate plans. We can control our lives until we can’t.

“Collision,’’ a new two-part installment of “Masterpiece Contemporary,’’ does full justice to the chance accident trope. The miniseries, which premieres tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 2, is a beautifully orchestrated collection of short stories, each of which has the same crash at its center. The stories are quite distinct in tone, from the heightened intrigue of a smuggler on the run to the ordinary psychological messiness of an irritable mother-in-law, but they all fall together with remarkable ease. Written by Michael A. Walker and “Foyle’s War’’ creator Anthony Horowitz, “Collision’’ is a satisfying emotional journey through the twists, turns, and overpasses of a dozen or so lives.

The miniseries also benefits from a strong uniting performance by Douglas Henshall as John Tolin, the detective charged with untangling the collision that left at least two people dead and the police facing accusations of racism. Tolin’s family was changed forever by a car accident, and so he carries a lot of personal baggage into his investigation. As he looks into how the five cars wound up on the same London highway on a Friday afternoon, and what triggered the pileup, he gets closer to his own need for resolution. Wisely, Henshall refuses to play Tolin’s difficult process with a heavy hand. He brings a sympathetic restraint to his performance - wide eyes, but limited facial expressiveness - that only adds to its ultimate resonance.

The narrative jumps around in time, from before the accident to its aftermath and back again. But I can’t say I was ever confused or frustrated along the way. Clues about the secrets buried in each story emerge with enough frequency to keep even the most impatient viewer in lockstep.

In one plot strand, wealthy, depressed Richard Reeves (Paul McGann) survives the crash but may not survive his stiff-upper-lipped marriage. In another, piano teacher Sidney Norris (David Bamber) is sitting on a big secret that may involve his young students. A third revolves around young lovers Alice (Lenora Crichlow) and Gareth (Anwar Lynch), who are on their way to her mother’s birthday party. The performances in these and the other strands are uniformly solid, and one - by Philip Davis as a pent-up husband - accumulates into something extraordinary.

But the true stars of “Collision’’ are Horowitz, Walker, and director Marc Evans, who keep the suspense and mystery afloat until the witty end. As storytellers, they successfully evoke the chaos of interaction without ever losing hold of their master plan.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

COLLISION Starring: Douglas Henshall, Christopher Fulford, Paul McGann, Kate Ashfield, Lucy Griffiths, Dean Lennox Kelly, David Bamber, Philip Davis

On: PBS, Channel 2

Time: Sunday, 9-11 p.m.

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