A crime that shocked a nation becomes the touchstone for a social campaigner’s test of his Christian beliefs in “Longford,” another powerful exercise in dramatized “reimagining” by “The Queen” scribe Peter Morgan. Though pic carries extra resonances for British viewers — especially those over 50 who can re-member the so-called Moors Murders of the mid-’60s — the dramatic conflict is clearly enough etched and provides a sufficient feast of acting for this to work offshore as a specialist, upscale item. TV movie re-ceived positive reviews when first aired on the U.K.’s Channel 4 last October.
Lord Longford — real name: Frank Packenham — attracted renown during the ’60s when the former govern-ment minister and then-leader of the House of Lords took up the cause of Myra Hindley, who’d been convicted, along with her partner Ian Brady, of the abuse and murder of three Manchester children aged between 10 and 17. The youngsters’ bodies were dug up on the bleak Pennine Moorlands, in northern England.
The 1965 slayings horrified a country that was already sailing into the carefree Swinging ’60s, with Hindley, as a woman, especially demonized for her supposedly accomplice role.
It was a tag that never left her: Pic is bookended by a sequence set in 1987, where Longford (eerily reincar-nated by Jim Broadbent) is trying to plug his latest book on a radio show. All the callers-in want to do is barrack him about his support, started decades earlier, for Hindley’s parole. Sequence ends with Longford asked, “Do you regret it?” and auds have to wait until pic’s end for his answer.
Well-chosen black-and-white TV footage from the time, accompanied by Rob Lane’s chordal underscoring, chillingly conjures up the original events as the bodies are discovered. Two years later, in 1967, Longford, al-ready well-known for his work with the prison population, gets a letter from Hindley (Samantha Morton, slyly underplaying) asking him to visit her.
Despite opposition from his wife (Lindsay Duncan), who brands Hindley a “monster,” Longford goes to meet Hindley. In a neatly staged sequence, he initially doesn’t recognize the now-brunette crim from her much-published bottle-blonde mugshot.
In what turns out to be the first of several clever script twists, Hindley wins Longford over, bonding with him as a converted Catholic and convincing him to let her “return” to the Church. What initially seems an over-soft perf by Morton is put into perspective at the half-hour mark, when Longford visits Brady (Andy Serkis) and is given a very different take on Hindley.
Though Serkis makes only a couple brief appearances in the movie, it’s his playing and his character — a sa-tanic mix of lunacy and lucidity — that sparks the moral and ethical dilemmas of the title character. The devil really does get the best lines here, and Serkis’ scary, hair-trigger perf is riveting.
With such a legendary character as Hindley in the movie, it’s tempting — especially for viewers familiar with the case — to expect her rather than Longford to become the principal character. But as in “The Queen,” in which two totally different characters are juxtaposed and finally form a kind of understanding, it’s the title one who slowly gains the ascendancy. However, whereas in “The Queen” the young Tony Blair is shown to learn and profit from the elder regent’s experience, the young Hindley essentially proves the downfall of her elder during their 30 years’ on-and-off acquaintance.
Scripter Morgan reserves his most emotionally powerful moments for the final reel, as the pic returns to Long-ford’s radio interview and he answers the caller’s question. A coda, set in 1997, only a few years before both Longford’s and Hindley’s deaths, brings a rather over-neat emotional closure to the film, as it fabricates a kind of reconciliation between the two.
Main weakness of Morgan’s script is the large quantity of expository dialogue. Given the unfamiliarity of the case to younger auds, and especially to non-Brits, this was perhaps deemed necessary in the HBO co-production. But at times it obfuscates the human drama in a way that was not apparent in “The Queen” and Morgan’s Tony Blair-Gordon Brown telepic, “The Deal.”
Broadbent, not an obvious choice to reincarnate the bumbling, bespectacled scholar-campaigner, is uncannily accurate as Longford, catching the almost childlike conviction that made him a hate figure-cum-laughingstock during his lifetime. (Major kudos are also due for Victoria Bancroft’s naturalistic prosthetics work.) Duncan is fine as Longford’s strong but devoted wife, though her dialogue rings the least natural.
TV helmer Tom Hooper, best known Stateside for the Hilary Swank starrer “Red Dust” and HBO’s “Elizabeth I,” directs with smooth economy, focusing on the thesps. Period detail is effective on an obvious budget, and splicing of Broadbent into color TV broadcasts is well done.