Queenie, review: a first-rate character study you can’t help but fall in love with

Dionne Brown is brilliant as Queenie Jenkins
Dionne Brown is brilliant as Queenie Jenkins - Latoya Okuneye/Channel 4

There is so much that is so good about Queenie (Channel 4), Candice Carty-Williams’s adaptation of her bestselling novel, that it makes its misfires confounding. This is nearly but not quite a drama of the calibre of I May Destroy You or Fleabag, both of which were essentially single point-of-view female character studies like Queenie. But at key points Queenie lacks the formal daring and authorial chutzpah to be something entirely new, as both those series were.

The eponymous Queenie Jenkins is a 25-year-old Jamaican-British woman caught between two cultures. She’s a fledgling social media assistant at a national newspaper who aspires to write features but is an outsider at a fundamentally white, middle-class institution. At the same time she’s a born and bred South Londoner whose friends and extended family are worlds apart from the stuffy, waspish newsroom.

The story begins with Queenie’s legs hoisted on the gynae stirrups, not realising that she has had a miscarriage. That sets the tone for a bravura unravelling, as Queenie’s relationship with Tom (Big Boys’ Jon Pointing) collapses and she spirals in to a series of meaningless trysts, with all the nosedive in self-worth that rapacious swiping-right tends to bring.

Queenie herself is quite beautifully rendered by Dionne Brown, in the kind of performance that you only ever find when an actor has fallen hook, line and sinker for their character. It makes an audience love a character too, and in a piece as centrally focussed as Queenie, that’s essential. Brown’s is a brilliant, sustained and very moving rendition.

Sally Phillips and Dionne Brown in Queenie
Sally Phillips and Dionne Brown in Queenie - Latoya Okuneye/Channel 4

She brings out the best in her co-stars, too, with Cristale De’Abreu as Queenie’s “little” (but hugely adult) cousin Diana, Samuel Adewunmi as long-term love-interest Frank, and the singer-songwriter Bellah as Queenie’s Peckham bestie Kyazike all superb. Add Queenie’s extended family (Llewella Gideon as her grandma; Michelle Greenidge as Aunty Maggie; Joseph Marcell as her Grandad Wilfred) and you have a believable, close-knit community nexus, all engendered in a series of eight crisp half-hours.

Where Queenie stumbles is in its plotting. There is, inevitably in this post-Freudian age, an unspecified childhood trauma that lies beneath all of Queenie’s self-defeating decisions. While this may be psychologically credible, it’s also become the hoariest TV arc in the book – you can see Queenie’s reckoning and reconciliation with her initially absent mother coming from a mile off. The subtext of the whole show is that the story is a form of therapy for Queenie. So to put her in to actual therapy midway through, as they do here, is both hackneyed and unnecessary.

Likewise, the show is patterned with an interior monologue that, from time to time, lets Queenie tell us what she’s thinking. This is a vestige of its roots as a novel, but in modern television it’s patronising: when you have actors doing good work as they are here, they can show you what they’re thinking. We don’t need the York Notes.

All told, these are frustrations born of near-excellence, not of dislike. As a character study Queenie is first-rate. As a drama, you only wish it pushed things further.

Queenie is on Channel 4 at 10pm tonight, and is available as a boxset on Channel 4 online now