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Under the Banner of Heaven review – Andrew Garfield shows off his spidey skills in this gritty detective drama | TV

We need to talk about beards. In Under the Banner of Heaven (Disney+), witnesses report that four suspicious men leaving the scene of a double murder are all bearded. If this were Portland or Shoreditch, where beards are not just lavish but artisanal, that would make all men suspects, but this is Mormon-heavy Utah, where searching for bearded men is less like looking for needles in haystacks and more like trying to find ZZ Top at an Osmonds gig.

Andrew Garfield as Detective Jeb Pyre is an ideal Mormon. He is clean-shaven, soberly suited, eschews coffee and when his partner, newly arrived from the Sodom and Gomorrah that is Las Vegas, offers him some curly fries, he snaffles them furtively under the desk. When the latter cusses, Pyre gently reproves him. He’s soft-spoken and soft-skinned, most likely moisturizing more rigorously than Mormon orthodoxy recommends.

The pair form a double act as unlikely as Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy in 48 Hours. Pyre is unworldly, yet knows just what makes a Mormon tick, while Detective Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham, Jacqueline Vorhees’ Native American dad in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) is a Paiute, so a non-white non-Mormon, doubly skeptical about the saintliness of the suspects’ innocence.

We first see Pyre playing with his daughter, lassoing her with the lawnmower cable – good to see that Garfield’s spidey skills are still intact. But this sunny idyll is broken with a phone call: a woman, Brenda Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones), and her 15-month-old baby have been found with their throats cut. We’re suddenly plunged into the darkling world of the crime procedural, where on no account must a detective turn on the lights at a crime scene for fear of killing the mood (which makes it all the more surprising the murder clear-up rate on TV is higher than in real life). Like the first episode of Twin Peaks, this murder will devastate a small town where murders hardly ever happen, especially when it becomes clear that it is not corrupt outsiders but Latter Day Saints (LDS) who are responsible.

What about the beards, though? Are the killers wearing false ones to confound the hated cops, or are they a splinter group of fundamentalist Mormons who want to revert to ye olden bearded days of yore? I’m looking forward to finding out at the end of this six-part series.

When Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven was published in 2003, it juxtaposed this true crime with the early history of the Mormon church in the US, from the moment in 1823 when an angel directed Joseph Smith to a buried set of golden plates, which he translated into English – a text he never dreamed would be adapted as a musical hit, namely the Book of Mormon.

This dramatization punches up the Mormons’ historic sense of persecution, from the days when they were a religious minority driven out of Ohio and Missouri until 1984, when the Lafferty family, businesses failing and tax bills mounting, take succour in century-old Mormon teachings. about rejecting a purportedly overweening state’s taxation policies and polygamy.

The book is adapted by means of flashbacks, both to the early Mormons’ travails as they strike out to set up Zion, as well as the events that led to the murders. We see Brenda as an interloper in the Lafferty family, a Mormon from out of state who yearns not to supply endless babies to her new husband, but to become a TV newsreader – an ambition that, to the Lafferty men, is an affront to patriarchal Mormon norms.

The role gives Edgar-Jones the chance to be more animated than as the glumly ardent lover of Sally Rooney’s Normal People and less vexing than her turn as what Peter Bradshaw calls “Manic Pixie Dream Girl Murder Suspect” in his review of the new adaptation of Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing. She must, and does, suggest something more nuanced – a strait-laced woman uppity enough to refuse to bend the knee to the polygamous patriarchy. That said, I could have done without the script informing us repeatedly that Brenda is pretty. Show, don’t tell, people.

It’s an elegant and even topical adaptation that dares to ask big questions. What in this fallen world can make a believer doubt their faith? Should the godly render unto Caesar? Or should they hole up in a log cabin to do battle against his diabolical forces from him?

No wonder some Mormons have been critical of this adaptation: it shows their church as including murderous rebels using a perversion of LDS theology to justify their crimes. But we need not see it that way. It is emblematic too of a certain kind of American, emboldened by Trump, who sees the state as the enemy and tooled-up resistance to it as noble.

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