Thursday, July 05, 2007

Film Review #110: Longford
Director: Tom Hooper
Screenwriter: Peter Morgan
Cast: Jim Broadbent, Samantha Morton, Andy Serkis, Lindsay Duncan

Given the unattractiveness of the principal characters and the unwillingness of the filmmakers to turn this story in Saw Brittania - for reasons that will become clear - it’s a wonder we can watch it on this side of the pond at all. Despite a US screening at Sundance in January, this uncommonly fine small docudrama has not gone the theatrical route. Instead, originally made for British TV’s Channel 4 where it premiered last October, Longford first broadcast here on HBO in February and still occasionally airs (next on July 10th, for example).

Now it makes the radar via rental venues. As Frank Pakenham, the prison reformer, British MP and seventh Lord Longford, actor Jim Broadbent stares owlishly from the stark black and white DVD cover, a wreath of silvery hair askew, while Samantha Morton, as the serial murderess Myra Hindley, gazes away, her profile wreathed in cigarette smoke. Separating them, a field of inky black surrounds – almost swamps – the single word title in white. Like everything about this well-wrought film, the DVD cover’s graphic design is a study in confident understatement, dramatic structure and clarity.

Longford relates the lengthy though intermittant relationship between a deeply spiritual patrician lawyer, committed to prison reform and rehabilitation, and Myra Hindley, who lured five children into her car and handed them over for violation and murder to her lover Ian Brady (an icily, mesmerizingly malicious Andy Serkis, Gollum in Lord of the Rings). When Myra’s sister’s boyfriend turned them in – apparently they sought to recruit him – their arrests led to three graves outside Manchester, the sensational 1965 trial and subsequent life terms.

Some years later, in a bizarre apparent attempt to one-up each other from separate prisons, each confessed to two more murders. Longford includes clips of archival TV coverage of police and volunteers searching the moors’ bleak expanse, plus clips of news comments from two victims’ parents and splices of TV personality David Frost interviewing Longford. The “Moors murder case” still retains its hold on the British public – this is the second film project prompted by Longford’s 2001 death and Myra Hindley’s the next year.

In sentencing Myra, the judge stated he believed that she had come under Brady’s corrupting influence. This was one of Longford’s key beliefs too in his often derided campaign to secure her parole – despite a damning audiotape secretly made by Brady during one of the prolonged murders, on which Hindley’s voice instead suggests little reluctance or hesitation. Lesser filmmakers would put this tape to lurid use. Instead, Hooper and Morgan structure a film in which key turning points occur as something is overheard or confessed that, as Hooper says, “tests the idea of forgiveness utterly to its breaking point.”

The story is framed by a 1987 radio interview that Longford, a Catholic convert, gave about a book he wrote about saints – later the same year as Brady and Hindley’s additional revelations, and after Myra has dismissed Longford – in which an angry caller demands to know whether Longford now regrets supporting Myra. The main narrative occurs in the long pause before his answer.

This begins with Longford’s first visit to Hindley, at her request – he had visited prisoners since the 1930s, including killers – and covers his years of advocacy, his intellectually accomplished family’s consternation, his foray into fighting pornography as a substitute cause (it doesn’t go far enough to call this wry, wholly effective section comic relief), his wife’s meticulously considered change of heart and her own visit to Myra, and Longford’s anguished decision to finally listen to that cassette tape, which he received anonymously and kept in his desk drawer for years.

Similarly to the oblique manner in which Michael Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart approaches the video of Daniel Pearl’s beheading, Hooper and Morgan show us Longford’s face as he listens to that cassette, rather than what he hears. Then, fade back to that radio show and Longford’s answer to the caller. Quick cut again to Myra’s prison dayroom, where she sits beside the radio, smoking, and hears him say that forgiving her has “proven difficult.”

These shifts are hugely effective in conveying Longford’s struggle. He is often shot with a hand-held camera against an open blue sky, while Myra almost always – with two vivid exceptions – appears in tight, static shots that express the confinement of both her circumstances and interior life.

Though a minor key film, Longford comes from a majorly popular cinematic team. Peter Morgan also wrote The Queen, The Last King of Scotland, and the forthcoming movie of his own play, Frost/Nixon. All these works argue that even singular grand figures are best known via relationship. Tom Hooper, now filming John Adams for PBS, gave us the intrigue of PBS’ Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness and Elizabeth I, both with Helen Mirren. The DVD has some extras including a straightforward but informative commentary track with Hooper and Morgan together. If good and evil interest you at all, let this film into your house.

This review appears in the 7/5/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent films that didn’t open in Syracuse & older films of enduring worth.