The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2011)
This review of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2011) contains a discussion of the relevant historical events. If you prefer to watch this television film by Hat Trick Productions without preconceptions, do not read this review.
The script by Neil McKay is based on a real-life Victorian murder mystery that has most recently been brought back into the public view by Kate Summerscale as The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House (Bloomsbury, 2008). This book won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2008 and its success prompted this second television version of the story — the first being in 1980 by the BBC, titled A Question of Guilt. The essence of the mystery can be simply put. This is a locked house with absolutely no sign of anyone having forced entry. It’s the home of the Kent family and their servants. A four-year old boy is lifted from his cot and taken to an outside privy where he’s murdered. In fact, so violent is the cut to the boy’s throat that he’s almost decapitated. The body is then pushed down into the vault under the privy itself.
The local police first suspect Elizabeth Gough (Kate O’Flynn). She claims to be asleep in the room from which the boy was taken but local gossip gives her a motive. The boy’s father, Samuel Kent (Peter Capaldi) had previously had an adulterous affair with a servant while his first wife was dying. When his wife died, he married that servant who, as Mary Kent (Emma Fielding) later gave birth to the murder victim. With his second wife heavily pregnant, gossip suggests the father was having another affair with this nursemaid. If the boy woke up and saw them in bed together, it would give the nursemaid (and the adulterous father) a motive to silence the witness. The local police are led by Superintendent Foley (Tom Georgeson) who will not hear a word spoken against the father. This leaves the nursemaid to face the murder charge alone. Except the Magistrates rightly point out there’s no evidence at all to show her guilt.
Because the case has attracted national publicity and questions are being asked of the Home Secretary in Parliament, Scotland Yard sends the reliable Inspector Whicher (Paddy Considine) to take charge of the investigation. At every turn, the investigation is obstructed by Superintendent Foley, but Samuel Kent literally opens the door of his house and encourages the Inspector to find the truth. As shown, the investigation soon focuses on Constance Kent (Alexandra Roach). She and her brother William (Charlie Hiett) have received little love from their stepmother and, since the birth of the boy, even their father has little time for them. This would give one or both of them a motive of jealous revenge for love denied. Indeed, it’s suggested Constance has previously shown signs of mental instability making her the more likely suspect. The one piece of physical evidence that might prove the matter is a missing undergarment but, despite a search, it cannot be found. When all Inspector Whicher can do is voice his suspicions, he’s mocked and suspended by the police for failing to solve the case.
Some five years later, Constance confesses to the murder and a subordinate of the Superintendent reveals that Foley had covered up the loss of the blood-stained undergarment. When the two new pieces of evidence are put together, Whicher is vindicated. Had the missing physical evidence been made available during the investigation, Constance would likely have been convicted. However, this was not the end of the notoriety of the case. Whicher suspected it was more likely that Constance and William acted together. With there being no evidence to show whether this was true, attention focused on the Reverend Wagner (Antony Byrne). He had been acting as a spiritual advisor to Constance and had heard her Confession. However, he refused to reveal anything, asserting that everything said during Confession was covered by absolute confidentiality. Since she confessed to the murder in open court, neither the Magistrates nor the subsequent Assize judge pushed the issue. But there’s no doubt in English law that an Anglican clergyman has no privilege and cannot refuse to answer questions about what was said during a Confession.
This judicial failure to investigate led to an amazing amount of speculation both in the press and subsequently by public figures such as Charles Dickens. The tone of the discourse highlighted the ambivalence about the father. He was a man who maintained a public front. He rented a large house but struggled financially. His income came from public funds which paid for his time as an enforcer of factory and mine safety legislation. This made him popular with those who saw their moral duty as requiring intervention to protect workers from unnecessary injuries, but he was hated by the owners of factories he closed down and by all the workers deprived of a chance to earn a living. The notion he was a serial adulterer appealed to those who would prefer to see the dark side of the man. Kate Summerscale asserts it more likely Constance was protecting William. Since there was clear evidence she hated her father and had tried to run away from home, she has no real motive either to assist him in killing her stepbrother or to cover up the father’s crime.
As a production, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is most carefully constructed. It avoids any suggestion of melodrama with Paddy Considine playing Whicher as quiet and determined to arrive at the truth. He’s less interested in more abstract notions of justice. He simply wants answers to the questions he poses. The mounting political pressure is nicely shown and the predatory nature of the journalists in the small Wiltshire town is modern in its tone. The hostility of the local police also comes over as credible. Superintendent Foley believes himself capable of running the investigation, resents London’s interference and so is delighted to assist Whicher to fail. The pivotal role of Peter Capaldi is beautifully judged. He could be a man mourning the murder of his son or he could be a murderer artfully trying to shift blame to others. When Constance and William are threatened, he seems to be assisting Whicher but probably pays the maid to change her testimony about Constance’s alleged mental instability, and pays for a barrister to undermine Whicher’s credibility when the case comes before the Magistrates. Finally, Alexandra Roach as the accused Constance hides behind a wall of great intelligence and fortitude. It’s surprising she should ultimately confess. Overall, this is a superior recreation of a major Victorian crime with a nice sense of period manners and style. It’s well worth watching!