Wrapping a mystery within a mystery, “Place of Execution” is an absorbing “Masterpiece Contemporary” production that appropriately comes from an entity christened Ingenious Broadcasting — “ingenious” pretty well describes the movie’s last-act twist. Split into two parts (although the second runs less than an hour), this ITV import has a rather interesting take on the fascination with salacious crimes, missing kids and even the death penalty, especially as filtered through the maw of a tabloid-tinted media. It’s another reminder that the Brits do crime as well as anybody.
Adapted by Patrick Harbinson from Val McDermid’s novel and crisply directed by Daniel Percival, the story unfolds on two levels. Juliet Stevenson plays Catherine Heathcote, who is working on a documentary about a sensational case surrounding a 13-year-old girl who disappeared from the hamlet of Scardale in 1963. The project then flashes back to the investigation, which finds a driven young investigator named George Bennett (Lee Ingleby as a young man, and Philip Jackson as an old one) zeroing in on the girl’s imperious stepfather, Philip (a terrific Greg Wise), as a prime suspect.
In the present day, however, Bennett informs Catherine that he wants to withdraw from the documentary after submitting to extensive interviews — and providing the linchpin of her project — saying only of the original case, “Mistakes were made.” Her explorations thus parallel the audience’s discovery of what happened — and whether justice was truly done.
The period trappings from the ’60s are perfectly done and in the first half, the events of 1963 threaten to overshadow the modern thread. Yet the two ultimately connect in an extremely satisfying way — about which the less said, the better.
The fragmented nature of the story somewhat limits the cast, but in addition to the unctuous qualities exuded by Wise (previously seen in “Cranford”), Ingleby is strong as a young detective whose commitment to solving the crime borders on obsession.
“Masterpiece” added the “Contemporary” label specifically so it could dabble in corset-free fare, yet “Place of Execution” manages to be both contemporary and nostalgic — a finely chosen place, coupled with first-rate execution.