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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.

Paddy Considine outside the impressive property rented by Peter Capaldi

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.

Peter Capaldi and Emma Fielding whose relationship is at the heart of the mystery

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.

Alexandra Roach and Charlie Hiett as teens resenting their stepmother and new brother

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.

Paddy Considine and Tom Georgeson stepping on each other’s toes

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!

Blitz (2011)

September 28, 2011 Leave a comment

I recently began the review of a film based on a novelette by criticising the scriptwriters and director for failing to ditch the poor-quality source material and put together a decent film for a modern audience. This film is the mirror image being a really good version of an even better short novel. Welcome to the world of the police procedural as seen through the eyes of Ken Bruen. He’s an Irish writer, more often in the old school style we call hardboiled. In some senses, he also throws in noirish elements. Yes, this combination usually refers to PI stories of an American ilk but, with the Jack Taylor series, we’re somewhat improbably transplanted to Galway where, it turns out, people are just as violent and dangerous as on the mean streets of a random US city.

Jason Statham as Brant attends the funeral of his "boss"

 

Another series considers the working partnership of DS Tom Brant and CI James Roberts in London. After the so-called While Trilogy — A White Arrest, Taming the Alien and The McDeadBlitz appeared in 2002. This is the second of Ken Bruen’s books to be turned into a film, the first being London Boulevard starring Colin Farrell and Keira Knightly. This is a free-standing novel, the film being in a similar spirit to, but rather better than, The Bodyguard starring Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston.

Aidan Gillen as Blitz getting into the mood before the second shooting

 

This version of Blitz stays more or less faithful to the novel in that the sociopathic Barry Weiss (Aidan Gillen) takes it into his head to start killing police officers, and our team of Brant and Roberts are given the task of tracking him down. It’s interesting to watch Jason Statham without the usual flamboyance. He’s as violent as in the majority of his other films, but this has a more naturalistic feel with the script giving him the chance to show how and why he has ended up as lethal as the man he’s chasing. In many ways, this is an impressive performance and it’s a nice counterpart to Paddy Considine who rather plays against type as the gay Chief Inspector. Thus, for different reasons, both officers are the subject of disapproval: Brant because his violent exploits get written up in the local newspapers and give the police a bad name, and Roberts because of his sexuality. There’s real on-screen chemistry between the pair and this helps lift the film above the merely average British police procedural level. The other impressive element is the subplot involving the young Elizabeth Falls played by Zawe Ashton. This character came out of the White Trilogy in something of a mess. Having worked undercover, she’s just out of rehab for a serious addiction problem, and is struggling to cope with life. I’m not wholly convinced by the behaviour of DI Craig Stokes (Luke Evans), but with the only help coming from Stokes and Brant, her isolation in the community is entirely realistic.

Paddy Considine as Roberts trying to keep Brant under control

 

Aidan Gillen, more recently seen in Game of Thrones as Petyr Baelish, is wonderfully narcissistic as the killer — he names himself Blitz, strutting and preening when given the chance, but also displaying a pleasing malevolence when called to violence. Without a strong performance, the film would have lacked balance. With him and the venal informer Radnor (Ned Dennehy) dancing attendance, even with his slightly damaged knee, we have a credible threat for our detectives to confront.

Zawe Ashton as Falls encourages her unsung hero

 

As to the plot, the first half of the film is nicely constructed and flows in a believable way. The second half, however, is riddled with unexplainable moments. Like once the detectives focus on Weiss as a suspect, why does it take so long for someone to read through his past criminal record? I suppose we can later guess who telephones Brant while he’s attending the funeral of CI James Robert (Mark Rylance), but everything that follows just becomes increasingly improbable. This is not to say the ending makes the film unsatisfactory. Once the police accept they have nothing more than circumstantial evidence and must let Weiss go, the ending is inevitable and emotionally satisfying. No-one would want a cold-blooded killer like Weiss left out on the streets. Yet, why is the evidence only circumstantial? There’s no proper attempt to search his flat for the bag that later turns up there, no voice print from the telephone recording they have of Blitz, no attempt to trace the money in his possession and whose fingerprints were on the envelope? Worse, the manner of the ending raises far more questions than the film chooses to answer. How could any police force cover this up? That said, this is a different ending from the novel and, on balance, I prefer the novel’s rather more understated but entirely understandable conclusion. Bruen’s ending certainly would be an unsolved crime.

 

Overall, the book is better because it deals with more of the politics of policing, describing the infighting between the officers in management and those at the sharp end who must go out and do the work. Nevertheless, this cuts down to the bare essentials of the plot and, with considerable verve from first-time director Elliott Lester, it carries through to the end, not allowing much time for thought (a good thing, in a way, given the film’s ending). There’s some verbal humour to leaven what would otherwise have been rather too grim — the knowing inclusion of several behavioural and action clichés also adds to the amusement. If you are offended by crude language and some explicit violence, then this is probably not for you. Otherwise, Blitz is a slightly obvious story told in a somewhat kinetic way. It’s worth seeing if you enjoy the British style of police procedurals/thrillers and can stop yourself analysing the film as you go along.

 

Here are reviews of the films featuring Jason Statham:
Blitz (2011)
Gnomeo and Juliet
Killer Elite (2011)
Safe (2012)

 

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