The Last Panthers, Sky Atlantic, Samantha Morton

Tahar Rahim as Khalil

Panther hunter – Tahar Rahim as Khalil

A gritty, riveting Euro-drama with a blockbuster cast and superb writing, direction and production 

★★★★½ Sky Atlantic, Thursday, 12 November, 9pm

WHILE we Brits prepare for the referendum to decide whether to go it alone outside of the EU, Sky Atlantic has embraced the Continent with this bold and ambitious Euro co-production.

It’s a big, complex tale about the real-life Pink Panthers gang of jewel thieves, the Balkan-based network of ex-servicemen and criminals who carried audacious and spectacular gem raids throughout Europe. At the same time, it offers a glimpse of the pan-European crime scene and the fallout from the breakdowns of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

It’s also a far more sophisticated drama than mainstream whodunits of the sort set around Oxford and Midsomer. And finally, with a terrific script and direction, knockout cast and title music from David Bowie, it must be the best series Sky has ever made.

The Pink Panthers hit Marseille

First, the story. Episode one kicks off with a heart-pounding heist in a marble-clad jewellery store in Marseille. This is being carried out by members of the spectacularly successful gang dubbed the Pink Panthers by the media.

The Last Panthers, Sky Atlantic

Samantha Morton as Naomi

However, as Milan Novak (Goran Bogdan) and his team flee the scene, the robbery goes badly wrong and an innocent girl is shot dead. English insurance company loss adjustor Naomi (Samantha Morton) is ordered to Belgrade, where the gang has its base, by her boss Tom (John Hurt) to recover the gems.

While her involvement annoys French detective Khalil (Tahar Rahim), Naomi’s return to the Balkans revives bad memories of her time in the military when she served there on behalf of the UN during the mid-90s conflict.

Goran Bogdan steals the show

We’re familiar with the excellent British contingent of Samantha Morton and John Hurt, but I felt the star of the show was new face Goran Bogdan as the thief known to the psychos in Belgrade as ‘animal’. The actor is such a charismatic presence on screen, displaying animal-like cunning, authority and brute force, that he carries the whole story along with gusto.

The Last Panthers, Sky Atlantic

Goran Bogdan as Milan

This is not to downgrade the other performances. All the principles play characters with big stories to tell – Naomi’s haunted military past, Khalil’s conflicted life as the Marseille gang member turned cop, and Tom’s increasingly desperate machinations.

Johan Renck, whose credits include Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, directs the whole series with verve, and the action has the powerful vibe of having been shot in locations including Marseille, Montenegro, Belgrade and London.

Writers Jack Thorne and Jérôme Pierrat

While the story – scripted by This Is England‘s Jack Thorne, based on the work of French journalist Jérôme Pierrat – is multilayered, there are also thrills aplenty. One such scene is set on a Hungarian encampment where Novak’s gang try to offload their jewels, tainted by the girl’s death, by doing a deal with another brutal mob.

As Sky Atlantic’s launch of the series at Bafta this week, Samantha Morton said The Last Panthers was ‘the best thing I’ve ever done’, and John Hurt said he was delighted to be involved in such as sophisticated piece of storytelling.

The Last Panthers launch at Bafta, 22 October, 2015. Copyright RobinJarossi

At Bafta in London: John Hurt, Goran Bogdan, Tahar Rahim and Samantha Morton

It would be easy to dismiss this as the usual hype you get as such events, but the cast didn’t need much prompting to praise the writing and ambition.

A co-production between Sky Atlantic and Canal Plus in France, The Last Panthers will be broadcast simultaneously across all of Sky’s networks in the UK, Ireland, Italy, Germany, Austria, and on Canal Plus. SundanceTV will show it in the US in the Spring.

Hang on to your armchairs.

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