UK / 92 minutes / color / Momentum, BBC, BFI, IM Global, Quickfire, Lipsync, Neal Street/Red Dir: Nick Murphy Pr: Pippa Harris, Nicola Shindler, Nick Laws Scr: Bill Gallagher Story: Conviction (2004; TV serial) by Bill Gallagher Cine: George Richmond Cast: Paul Bettany, Stephen Graham, Brian Cox, Mark Strong, Ben Crompton, Naomi Battrick, Zoë Tapper, Natasha Little, Sandra Voe, Jasper Britton, Adrian Edmondson, Danny McEvoy, Elizabeth Lowe, Patrick Hurd-Wood, Stuart McQuarrie, Claire Harris.
In a northern English town (unnamed, but in fact West Kirby, Wirral) Lenny Fairburn (Cox) used to run the local police force, and with a fist of iron. Even though he retired long ago, his senile dementia still brings him occasionally into the “office” where he puzzles as to why his desk is now occupied by his replacement, Daniel Telphen (Britton), and brags about the old days when he and his fellows beat confessions out of suspects—or, better, took them out the local islands (Little Eye, Middle Eye and Hilbre Island, all reachable by causeway at low tide) and so terrified them that “they’d confess to shagging their own mothers”.
Lenny (Brian Cox), struggling with his dementia.
Lenny’s two unalike sons, Joe (Bettany) and Chrissie (Graham), are still on the force, and show little nostalgia for the time when they were working under their dad.
When 12-year-old Angela Drinkle is found dead of multiple stab wounds in a local playground, tensions immediately run high at the police station; everyone, most especially Joe, recalls how, years ago, a rapist had to be released from custody because Joe botched some evidence, and that rapist promptly murdered a woman.
The original crime scene.
Soon the cops have an ideal suspect for Angela’s murder: Jason Buleigh (Crompton), a local verger who once did time for exposing himself to young girls and who was clearly obsessed with the dead girl—and dozens of others. There’s circumstantial evidence but nothing more, and Robert Seymour (Strong), the senior detective on the force, orders Buleigh’s release.
Jason Buleigh (Mark Crompton), a man too easy to loathe, in the interview room.
Soon after, it’s the party for the twentieth wedding anniversary of Joe and his wife Lily (Little). The three Fairburn men get royally drunk. On the way home, with Lenny unconscious in the back of the car, Joe and Chrissie pick up Buleigh, drive him out to one of the islands, and force him to dig his own grave. At last the terrified cleric blurts out a (false) confession and adds: “4REAL”—the wording of an amateur tattoo beside the dead girl’s pubic bone. Incensed, Joe lashes out with the shovel, killing Buleigh.
On the island, Joe (Paul Bettany) forces Buleigh (Mark Crompton) to dig his own grave.
Joe (Paul Bettany), aghast at what he’s done.
The two brothers plan their coverup. Their confidence is shattered next day, though, when CCTV footage turns up showing Buleigh could not possibly have been Angela’s killer. In fact, the original murder case is soon solved.
Where Angela was murdered.
When Buleigh’s mother Sandra (Voe) starts combing the neighborhood for information about her missing son, Chrissie is so moved by her grief that, even though he knows the truth, he starts “investigating” . . . For the remainder of the movie we see the two brothers’ shared guilt destroying their lives and their relationships with those around them—including Chrissie’s fiancée Jemma Venn (Tapper)—while Robert Seymour, like a predatory hawk whose eye has been caught by scuttling voles, circles toward them, ready to swoop. Robert, we feel, is in a sense avenging himself against the Fairburn family for all the years of fear he experienced as a copper under Lenny’s thumb. (A case could almost be made that the movie’s really about Robert, not the Fairburns.)
There are some marvelous set-pieces in the movie. Something that Buleigh said draws Robert and the two Fairburn brothers to a deserted cinema in town—one of the grand old movie palaces—and as they explore its interior they find a small forest of abandoned mannequins as if in homage to noir forebears like Stanley Kubrick’s KILLER’S KISS (1955), Jules Dassin’s DU RIFIFI CHEZ LES HOMMES (1955) and Blake Edwards’s EXPERIMENT IN TERROR (1962). Meanwhile, from outside floats in the spectral voice of one of the local kids, who’s got hold of a bullhorn and is challenging the Fairburns through it.
The forest of Mannequins.
Also memorable is a sequence in which the Fairburn brothers visit a witness whom Chrissie’s misguided “investigation” has turned up, local eccentric Tom Tiernan (comedian Edmondson, faring well in a rare straight role). Tiernan suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, and Joe deliberately destroys the man’s nerve by scrambling the positions of the ornaments arrayed around his apartment. Later Joe returns at night to Tiernan’s home and we fear the worst, because there’s a killer glint in his eye. He’s intercepted and dissuaded, though, by the “ghost” of Buleigh—who by now is serving as his conscience.
Chrissie (Stephen Graham) peers into the abyss of regret.
Joe’s (Paul Bettany) guilt is near to breaking him in two.
Clearly the movie’s main focus is guilt, which is seen as a worse punishment than anything the laws could inflict. After the killers of Angela—two boys—have been picked up, and as Robert’s suspicions that the Fairburn brothers are responsible for Buleigh’s disappearance are starting to flower, there’s a little scene in which either Robert is warning Joe or screenwriter Gallagher is engaging in dramatic irony. Says Robert to Joe:
Those boys getting caught—maybe it’s the best thing that’ll ever happen to them. The ones I feel sorry for are the ones that get away with it. You’re not what your friends and family think you are, so every moment of love they give you must be agony. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone—getting away with it.
We can see the words hitting Joe like blows.
But then Robert is in a league of policing that’s beyond anything the Fairburns have achieved, or could achieve. Earlier, when Joe’s venting about Angela’s horrific death, Robert tells him: “You know, Joe, sometimes you make the mistake of confusing anger with caring.” It’s the difference between the brutal, mindless policing of the past and, we hope, the more intelligent methods of today. Again there’s irony: by now Joe has killed Buleigh.
Robert (Mark Strong) interviews the boy Sammy (Danny McEvoy).
There are terrific performances from the leads—and from Crompton as the creepy but seemingly innocent pervert, echoing Ian Bannen’s turn in a rather similar role in The OFFENCE (1972)—and some splendid photography of the Dee estuary, the islands and the locale. Yet somehow, as striking as it is, the movie never quite leaves the launchpad: its thoughtfulness is admirable, but these are thoughts we’ve had before. That said, it’s a movie with sufficient depth of interest that it profits from and indeed improves upon a second viewing, which is more than one can say of most.
The movie was based on Gallagher’s six-part BBC Three serial Conviction (2004), which was nominated for a BAFTA Award and a Royal Television Society Award; Gallagher’s series teleplay was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award and won the Golden Nymph at Monte Carlo as Best European Drama Series.
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