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Helen Mirren successfully reprises her signature role

Helen Mirren successfully reprises her signature role

Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness opens with the discovery of a woman's body interspersed with what appears to be an autopsy. The victim is a young Muslim Serb, one of many refugees living under the radar of British authorities. She is found by a construction/demolition crew staffed largely with her fellow "ghosts." "There's no way you're going to find a ghost giving out a real address," the man who reports the victim's disappearance tells officers. "We do not exist."

The case might disappear entirely, were it being handled by anyone other than Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison. Over the course of five previous miniseries, the dogged Tennison has approached the toughest, most daunting crimes with a steely unflappability that fails her in her private life. Brilliantly portrayed by Helen Mirren, she has battled sexist bosses and corrupt underlings while dealing with the usual assortment of personal conflicts.

Fortunately, the Tennison of The Last Witness is the most stable we've seen. She's managing several murder squads and has earned their respect, for the most part. "Look and learn, children," a detective sergeant tells younger officers as Tennison interrogates her prime suspect. Yet she has also turned 54 (the opening "autopsy" was actually her annual department physical) and is being none-too-gently offered retirement. Fighting to prove she's still got it, Tennison seizes this latest case from subordinate DCI Finch (Ben Miles), plunging herself into the shadow world of London's Balkan immigrant community.

A willingness to tackle topical taboos in contemporary Britain made the first Prime Suspect a major success. In its subsequent episodes, the crackling crime drama has addressed issues ranging from racism to the exploitation of children, while providing an acerbic look at the rise of women in the British police force. The subject of The Last Witness is no less controversial, as Tennison travels to Bosnia to sift through the atrocity stories surrounding the murder. Butting heads with her superiors and a creepily suave optician/police interpreter (Oleg Menshikov), she fights to penetrate the veils of secrecy and official indifference. In the balance hang the lives of the murdered girl's sister (Ingeborga Dapkunaite) and a former paramilitary soldier (Velibor Topic).

To Mirren's credit, Tennison has never been entirely likeable. She remains brusque, a touch insecure and apparently unable to give those around her the compassion she shows victims and their families. But her rigid edginess keeps us aware how much pressure is on her to do "a man's job" without supposedly feminine displays of emotion. Tennison's concern for the vulnerable—along with her infallible instinct—is her redeeming feature, and Mirren makes her fearsome expertise both riveting and alluring. And will for some time, as Mirren has reportedly agreed to appear in a seventh episode. Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness airs in two weekly parts starting 8 p.m. Sunday on WNPT-Channel 8.

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