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Photo by Enda Bowe, courtesy of Netflix.

Acting Up: Siobhán Cullen Puts On a Stunning High-Wire Act in Netflix’s ‘Bodkin’


The Snapshot

Siobhán Cullen is Dove Maloney, a London reporter who is forced to head to her hometown of Bodkin, Ireland with podcaster Gilbert Power (Will Forte) and researcher Emmy Sizergh (Robyn Cara) to investigate the decades-old disappearance of three strangers from the idyllic town. Once they arrive and start looking into things, though, they discover a much bigger story than they could have imagined.

(The limited series Bodkin is currently available to stream in its entirety on Netflix)

The Performance

When we first meet Dove Maloney, she’s meeting a source in a dark London apartment building, and stumbles onto his body, after he hung himself. Faced with this nightmarish scene in front of her, she makes the first of a series of bad decisions that will ultimately haunt her throughout the seven-episode limited series but does so without looking back. No second thoughts here, Dove sees an opportunity and grabs it, without a thought to the consequences. It’s part of what makes her a very good reporter, but also a big reason why she gets into so much trouble.

That’s the first thing you notice about Dove. The second is that she is, in her own words, “kind of an arsehole.” “Kind of” is understating it. She’s actually an enormous arsehole and is not an easy character to root for, much less like.

She’s big on sabotage, be it the self kind or that of others, most of it unintentional. She speaks her mind (again, damn the consequences). She claims she’s just telling the truth, while often using that as a cover to be cruel or to take down someone else. One of the other characters in the show says that Dove is, “a fiercely irritating individual,” while another suggests that she “could start a fight in an empty room.”

If it’s not yet abundantly clear, Dove Maloney is a difficult person, a genuine antihero, which means playing her is something of a high-wire act for the performer inhabiting her. This means that, while it’s a fraught enterprise, it’s also going to be a lot of fun, and if you nail it, then you’re a hero.

Siobhán Cullen, Will Forte and Robyn Cara outside a crime scene.

Photo by Enda Bowe, courtesy of Netflix.

Enter Siobhán Cullen, who does just that with Dove, in her ubiquitous black trench coat and a scowl that softens as the story progresses, and Dove sees just how deeply she is enmeshed in something she didn’t expect. 

Cullen has a natural magnetism that makes it hard not to look at her. It’s not just physical attractiveness, though, with her dark Irish beauty, she does have that. It’s also about the presence and expressiveness she has with her eyes.

Dove spends a lot of time in Bodkin looking dour, or having no expression at all, and so there is an enormous amount that needs to be expressed solely with those eyes. What she sees, but also what is behind them.

Without ever raising an eyebrow, curling a lip, or flaring a nostril, she lets the audience know when she is scared, when she is angry, when she is amused or when she’s just annoyed at everyone and everything around her. It’s captivating to watch, even as you’re never really sure if you want her to succeed or not because she’s such a miserable arsehole.

Whenever the viewer wavers, though, Cullen brings something more, something that’s eminently watchable and, more than that, sympathetic. As Dove discovers more and more about both what’s happening in Bodkin and the mystery of her own life, Cullen allows her to be more expressive, so that by the time the climax arrives, you’re on the edge of your seat, hoping that she comes through.

It’s a classic cinematic journey, a character arc we’ve seen over and over again, but it’s portrayed and executed with such grace and charm, that it feels brand new. Credit Cullen with giving that to Dove, and, of course, to us.

Siobhán Cullen outside looking worried during a fire celebration.

Photo by Enda Bowe, courtesy of Netflix.

The Career

For most American viewers, Siobhán Cullen is probably a new face, but she’s been a staple on British TV for over a decade. There was the sci-fi series Origin, opposite Harry Potter veteran Tom Felton, and the Irish dramedy The Dry, in which she played the boozy sister of a young woman struggling to stay sober. However, the best previous example of the actress’ work is another dramedy called Obituary, currently available to view on Hulu.

In that darkly comedic series, Cullen is Elvira, who writes obituaries for the newspaper of her small Irish town. When the work dries up, since she’s paid by the obit, she turns to murder to create more work for herself.

It sounds dire, and it generally is, but she reassures herself by only taking out jerks. It’s another high-wire act because, as an actor, you’re asking the audience to root for someone who is actively killing other people. This is not a new concept in storytelling — Dexter is an obvious example — but there aren’t a lot of them that feature female murderers.

That only increases the degree of difficulty, but Cullen never falters. It would be easy to wink at the audience and let them know that she’s in on the gag, that she gets this is crazy and should be taken with a grain of salt, but she never does. She commits fully to it, and in so doing, makes the viewer take it very, very seriously. 

It’s not something actors set out to do, playing antiheroes who are tough to root for, but when you find that niche into which you fit so well, it’s kind of magical, because so few people can pull it off. Cullen, in just her last two roles, has established herself in exceedingly rarified air indeed. 

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