Having garnered considerable acclaim with the miniseries “Carlos,” Sundance Channel is back with a much lower-key but still grimly compelling longform project in “Appropriate Adult,” a two-part British movie starring Emily Watson and Dominic West. Based on a gut-wrenching true story, the clenched film chronicles serial killer Fred West and his strange relationship with Janet Leach, a court-appointed “appropriate adult” assigned to monitor his interrogation sessions. Starkly shot and a source of controversy in the U.K., the pic (being presented in one punishing 2 1/2-hour window) is further evidence of the Brits’ knack for crime drama.
Set in the 1990s, West’s Fred West is already in custody when Janet Leach (Watson), an unassuming social worker, housewife and mother, is called upon to sit in on his questioning by police. Gradually, the killer begins to rely on her, even as he delivers chillingly matter-of-fact descriptions of the murders — including some pertaining to missing members of his own family — committed in the 1960s and ’70s.
“You’re the only one I can trust,” he tells Janet, who is both aghast and oddly flattered to be in the thick of such a highly publicized case, even if her involvement yields troubles at home.
West, though, was also a master manipulator and liar, and particularly concerned over whether his wife, Rosemary (Monica Dolan), would be implicated in the killings. And since Janet is ostensibly there to safeguard his rights, she’s placed in an awkward position with detectives (a very authentic Sylvestra Le Touzel and Robert Glenister) frustrated by the killer’s evasions and mendacity.
Written and produced by Neil McKay and directed by Julian Jarrold, the movie is slowly paced and idiosyncratic. Beyond that, thesp West’s accent is so thick that many in an American audience would doubtless benefit from subtitles.
Nevertheless, the central performances are genuinely powerful — offering a psychological study but not exactly a thriller, inasmuch as there’s little suspense regarding the investigation. And while families of some victims have criticized the film for dredging up these crimes, the presentation is remarkably understated, allowing the horror to flow from hearing accounts of what the killer had done, as filtered through Watson’s pained expressions.
“Appropriate Adult” will hardly be everyone’s cup of tea (or coffee), but it’s such a formidable showcase for its leads as to merit the opportunity to reach a discriminating audience. By that measure, a late-Saturday berth on Sundance — the sort of venue unlikely to produce much ratings pop, relatively speaking — might just be an appropriate place for it.