Director – David Richards, Teleplay – Steve Lightfoot, Producer – Tim Bradley, Photography – Andrew Spiller, Music – Ben Bartlett, Visual Effects – Lime, Production Design – Michael Ralph. Production Company – Carnival Films & Television Limited/BBC Scotland
Stephen Moyer (Jimmy Collins), Heather Peace (DSI Jo Cavanagh), Mark Womack (DI Will Benson), Amanda Douge (Sarah), Amber Beattie (Amy), Peter Polycarpou (DCI George Petrides), Justin Salinger (Jack), Nick Sidi (Robert Evans), Carol Starks (Gail Evans), Phillippa Wilson (Maddy), Gary Raymond (Walter Meakes), Paul Richards (Darren), Noel White (Dan)
Jimmy Collins is released after a nine-year jail term for manslaughter. Immediately back into the outside world, Jimmy finds that whenever he touches somebody he is able to get flashes of their deepest, darkest secrets. The visions start driving him crazy. While on a railway platform, Jimmy bumps into a youth and receives flashes of him attacking a teenage girl. As they struggle, the youth leaves behind the coat he is wearing. When the story about an attack on a teenage girl hits the news, Jimmy decides to go to the police with what he has seen in his vision. Because he provides such detailed information about the crime, he is instead arrested as a suspect. However, the police are forced to release him after another teenage girl is killed while he is in the cells. Jimmy believes he has been granted this gift to make up for the crimes he did but faces having to convince a hostile police force that he can lead them to the killer.
Empathy is one of the numerous crime thrillers made for British tv. This is an underappreciated genre that has produced a number of worthy thrillers in the last few years. Several of these have also ventured into supernatural themes – see the popularity of Afterlife (2005-6) and the various Sea of Souls tv movies. The basic premise of Empathy is almost exactly the same one that appears in the Stephen King novel The Dead Zone (1979) and its various screen adaptations as the film The Dead Zone (1983) and tv series The Dead Zone (2002-7) in which a man wakes from a coma (or as here is released from jail) and discovers that he has an ability to see people’s pasts or futures whenever he touches them.
This type of clairvoyant story has been done a great many times on film – see tv works like Baffled! (1972), The Eyes of Charles Sand (1972), Visions (1972) and cinematic outings such as Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), Double Exposure (1981), Cassandra (1987), Fear (1990), Murderous Vision (1991), Dead On Sight (1994), Sensation (1994), Hideaway (1995), A Deadly Vision (1997), After Alice (1999), In Dreams (1999), The Gift (2000), Murder Scene (2000), Troubled Waters (2006), The Cell 2 (2009), Let Me Die Quietly (2009) and In/Sight (2011). (For a more detailed overview see Films About Clairvoyance and Precognition).
Most of these have tended to a cliche treatment where the only useful information a clairvoyant seems to get is clues to solve the central mystery. Empathy does a fair to okay job of telling this familiar story – one interesting spin is to have the clairvoyant going to the police with his information, only to be arrested on the assumption that only the killer would know such details. The writing throughout proves reasonable. The film arrives at an effective resolution, although there comes a last minute slingshot ending where Stephen Moyer goes to kiss cop Heather Peace and suddenly gets another vision, something that smacks of set-up for a potential series.
One of the pluses about Empathy is the central performance from Stephen Moyer, an actor who has previously appeared in various British tv series and bit film parts, before subsequently having a hit as the vampire on the tv series True Blood (2008-14). Moyer has a face and solid jawline that would seem to pit him as casting call for heroic leads. Instead, Moyer lets his long, thin face reflect fear and uncertainty all through the clench of his jaw and delivers a haunted performance.