Ellie Miller

Written by @EllieDangerous
Crime drama ‘Broadchurch’ is a nationwide hobby, lauded for its mix of classic British charm and microscopic attention to detail. Heading up the charm is DS Ellie Miller, played by Olivia Colman. I’ve happily followed Colman’s career since her comedy roles in the early 2000s, and in ‘Broadchurch’ she radiates personality, challenging David Tennant’s introversion with wave upon wave of bold, brash wit. In a series famed for shocking twists, this kind of performance has the effect of adding an extra genre to the series: horror.

Spoiler Alert
If comfort is your goal, Ellie Miller leads an envious life. And she really does lead it, the head of her family and the catalyst of her own career progression, at least to begin with. She has a nice house in the beautiful seaside town of Broadchurch, where she lives with a wonderful husband and two well-behaved kids. She has health, holidays, and good friends. Everyone likes her. “Quite right”, she’d agree brightly.

But let’s get back to that wonderful spouse. Joe Miller really is exactly that, to be honest. Funny, attentive, cuddly, sociable. He used to save lives as a paramedic, and now he stays at home and cheerfully takes care of their kids. We hesitate to admit it in this day and age, but it’s kind of cool that their family dynamic is not taken into question even for a second — he stays at home while his wife has the career, and that’s that. Parental roles are equalising between the genders more and more, but still. It’s kind of cool. Just a bit. Admit it.

David Tennant’s DI Hardy is Ellie’s co-lead, but we started with her and we learn and move through the story with her. We see much of it through her eyes, which according to DI Hardy are hazy with bias. She refuses to detach herself from her faith in all the familiar friends around her, and according to DI Hardy this is her biggest weakness. But she refuses to take that from this ill-mannered outsider who stole her job, and we’re totally with her on that. Shut up, Hardy. Ellie’s got it.

But he’s right; bias is her biggest weakness. Ellie’s active refusal to let go of it is essential to the twist to come, because she just can’t see it coming. We “see” the innocence of her eldest son, the warmth of her workplace and the flawlessness of her husband because that is what she sees.

The strength of Colman’s performance, combined with the programme’s writing, directing and even music, means that Ellie doesn’t have to brag about Joe to show us how marvellous he is. We should show ‘Broadchurch’ to writers who fail the Bechdel test. Show them that you don’t have to make a female character ramble about her man to let the audience know she loves him!

In Ellie we see our loved ones, or perhaps even ourselves. We like and admire her, and we definitely laugh with her. By the time her life is suddenly and brutally destroyed, we are right there with her. It’s rare to form such a close connection to a character.

In the end, what we’ve got is a horror among horrors. Imagine the one you trust with your secrets, your life, your kids. Imagine one in whom you have infallible faith. You take it for granted that you know them better than you know yourself. Then imagine they they secretly befriended, fell in love with and murdered a boy of eleven.

Throughout the first series of ‘Broadchurch’, there are hairline clues that Joe Miller is the murderer, but if we miss them it’s because we’re looking through Ellie’s rose-tinted glasses. The director is careful not to suspiciously drop him from montages, or linger on his face too long. The writers give him double-bluffs, like when he jokes to Ellie that he’s the killer and he should put him in handcuffs. And Matthew Gravelle matches Olivia Colman’s warmth smile for smile. It’s absurd to suspect him — until suddenly we know.

There’s a frightening moment just before this reveal, when DI Hardy knows and Ellie does not. “You've done good work on this, Miller”, he says. “Well done”. This niceness isn’t like DI Hardy at all. Ellie’s face falls.

Later, DI Hardy calls her Ellie. But he never calls her that. "Don't call me Ellie." It’s the breath before the storm, and we can already feel her heart roaring with fear, though her face is still and focussed.

When Ellie is told, she immediately refuses it. In her denial she's understandably insulted. “No. What the fuck? No, he didn't. He didn't.” As the truth about Joe pierces her like a slow, burning bullet, she doubles up and gags. The trauma breaks her physically. She doesn’t know what to do. So when she sets eyes on Joe she turns to rage, thrashing him; the one closest to her.

Is that how you would respond? ‘Broadchurch’ is so relatable that it asks that kind of question, and Ellie’s comfy realism as our lead makes it almost too relatable. It's not uncomfortable, it's just a shock. The very core of a good, strong horror story.
I’m going to solve it.
With respect, sir, move away from me now or I will piss in a cup and throw it at you.
Ellie Ball is the founder of Good Characters, and someone who enjoys coffee cake a great deal. She is a graduate of the Scriptwriting MA at Goldsmiths, University of London. For fun and respite, check out her TV analysis articles on Bang2Write or tweet coffee cake at her @EllieDangerous.
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Published on 27 August 2015

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