See No Evil; Longford

In the United Kingdom, most people know the names Myra Hindley and Ian Brady. Between 1963 and 1965, the peroxide blonde woman and her Scottish lover were responsible for at least five murders – three children younger than 13 years old, a 16-year-old female, and a 17-year-old male. In most cases, she lured the young victims into the clutches of her boyfriend who then raped and murdered them. Later, they interred the victims’ bodies in the Pennine Moors. They may have forever eluded capture had it not been for David Smith, the husband of Myra’s sister, Maureen. After having seen Brady hack his last victim to death, the terrified man went to the police. Following their trial, Brady was found guilty of three murders; Hindley, two. They escaped being hung for their offenses, because of the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965. Both were incarcerated. He “accepted” responsibility for his actions and is still in prison. (Over the years, he has gone on several hunger strikes as a way to commit suicide.) Until her death in 2002, she worked tirelessly to be released. (She died of lung and heart disease, brought about by years of chain-smoking.)

Unless you are an Anglophile with an interest in serial killers, you probably hadn’t heard of Hindley or Brady before 2006, when not one but two made-for-TV features appeared stateside:

See No Evil: The Moors Murders is a two-part, made-for-Granada-Television program that begins with a woman pushing a pram. She is Maureen Smith (Joanne Froggatt), and she’s paying a visit to the office of her older sister Myra Hindley (Maxine Peake), so that she can show off her baby. The sisters begin spending more and more time together, and because of this, Maureen encourages her husband, David (Matthew McNulty), to get better acquainted with Myra’s live-in lover, Ian Brady (Sean Harris), a strange Scotsman who peppers his conversations with German phrases and who offers existential musings on the nature of god and the soul. When the foursome hangs out, it isn’t uncommon for them to drive up to the Moors, a place where Ian seems to feel most at home.

A series of tragedies befall Maureen and David – their baby dies, and they are threatened with eviction – and these events make David more vulnerable to Ian’s “spell.” At Ian’s suggestion, David begins reading the Marquis de Sade, and he agrees to participate in a bank robbery. When that falls through, they decide to lure a homosexual to Ian and Myra’s flat. The plan is that they will blackmail him for money. But what actually happens is much worse: Ian hacks the young victim to death with an axe. Fearing that he will be next if he doesn’t “play it cool,” David helps clean up the mess. Blood-covered, he returns home after 2 a.m. and confesses what happened to Maureen. Incredulous, she tells him that he has to report the incident to the police, which he does, that next morning. Ian and Myra are arrested, and he admits to the murder. Myra and David, who is also considered a suspect, are eventually released. As you might expect, the rest of the film covers the trial and eventual incarceration of Ian and Myra. But the story doesn’t end there. Instead, it goes on to demonstrate how this couple’s crimes shattered not only the lives of the victims’ families but also the lives of those closest to them, specifically Maureen and David.

If you are unfamiliar with the crimes of Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, this 180-minute film is a good place to start. The acting is first rate with everyone delivering fine performances, particularly Harris, who gets the interesting task of embodying an unrepentant killer. Peake keeps you guessing about Myra. Was she a “human being” seduced and corrupted by “evil” incarnate, or was she a manipulative chameleon who fooled even those who “knew” her best? We will never know. At times, See No Evil reminded me of Dance with a Stranger, the 1985 crime biography about Ruth Ellis, another short-haired, peroxide blonde whose obsession with the object of her desire, in this case David Blakely (Rupert Everett), also ended in tragedy. (The difference, of course, is that Ellis was hanged for her murder of her lover.)

If you can find fault with See No Evil, it’s that it tiptoes around what actually happened to the victims. I’m not a person who needs lurid details or who even wants to see children being raped and strangled – one of the girls was forced to pose in pornographic photos – but if you are telling a true crime story, you have to be more forthright with what these people did. The British public was outraged by these murders and many continue to be. Even after Myra Hindley had rejoined the Catholic Church, she was still reviled. And after she had served 30-plus years in prison, only a small percentage of the British public wanted to see her released. But this complaint is coming from someone who didn’t grow up in the U.K., so maybe I would feel differently if I had, especially if I had grown up there during the time when these serial killers were engaging in their nefarious practices.

It’s interesting to note that See No Evil was written by Neil McKay, who also penned the excellent made-for-TV film Appropriate Adult (2011), which tells the story of Fred and Rose West, another notorious serial killing couple in the U.K., and This is Personal: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper (2000), which is about, yes, you got it, Peter Sutcliffe, the notorious prostitute-killing serial killer from Yorkshire. Appropriate Adult was screened in the U.S. on the Sundance Channel; I have no idea if This is Personal was ever screened in the U.S., although I’d love to see it. See No Evil won a number of awards, including a BAFTA TV Award for Best Drama Serial.

After you have immersed yourself in the early years of these killers, it’s time to put in a copy of the three-time Golden Globe-winning Longford (2006). This HBO-produced film centers on Lord Longford (Jim Broadbent), a member of the House of Lords who believed that Myra Hindley (Samantha Morton) deserved a second chance and should be paroled. A Catholic convert, Longford spent much of later life visiting inmates in prison. He became interested in Myra, after she sent him a letter, requesting a visit. Thinking he would meet the hardened bleached blonde from the police mug shot, this politician was surprised to find, instead, a timid, remorseful, brunette waiting for him. Almost immediately, he was drawn to her, and thus began his “campaign” to free her. Of course, this was courting controversy, and his decades-long “friendship” with her negatively affected his career.

Although I watched See No Evil with great interest – those three hours just fly by – the 93-minute-long Longford paints a much more compelling and multi-faceted portrait of Myra. When she is around Longford, she is the very model of a contrite, likable woman, so desperate for redemption, and he is only too happy to champion and embrace her. Actually, until Longford is summoned by Ian Brady (Andy Serkis), I shared the politician’s outrage. Maybe she was just a naïve person who was manipulated into doing ghastly things. And if she were a victim herself, how was it fair that she had remained in prison for as long as she had? My outrage disappeared when Ian began reading excerpts from Myra’s letters and offering his “insights” into Myra’s character. (And what about those damning photos and tape recordings?) I felt suckered; taken in. But then that’s the nature of psychopaths, for you. You have no idea what is real and genuine, and what is an act. They find your weaknesses and exploit them.

As much as I appreciated Harris’s take on Brady, I was positively riveted by Serkis. He commanded such presence and conveyed such menace … seriously, he gave me chills. If evil exists, his performance gives you a glimpse at how it might look. Actually, the interplay between Serkis and Broadbent during those few, very brief, exchanges offer the audience a masterclass on acting. It doesn’t get much better than this, folks. I don’t want to diminish the power of Morton’s acting. She is, as usual, phenomenal. I love her, because she is capable of being someone you want to cuddle one minute and someone who scares the bejesus out of you. Also very good is Lindsay Duncan, who plays Lady Elizabeth Longford, the main character’s intelligent and very devoted wife.

Written by the exceptionally talented Peter Morgan – some of his other credits include Frost/Nixon (2008), The Queen (2006), and The Last King of Scotland (2006) – Longford is yet another jewel in HBO’s crown of accomplishments. At the BAFTA Awards, it received nine nominations and won three, including ones for Best Writer, Best Editing Fiction/Entertainment, and Best Actor (Broadbent). I don’t know who she was up against in the Best Actress category, but I’m sure that Morton was robbed. (Serkis was competing against Broadbent, which is a bit silly as the latter had a lead role and the former, a cameo.) Fans of independent film will recognize Longford’s director – Tom Hooper, who helmed the multi-Academy Award winning The King’s Speech (2010).

If you get these films, watch See No Evil first and then Longford – I made the mistake of doing it the other way around – because it will put the characters and events into better context. Plus, everything will be in perfect chronological order. I can’t think of a more entertaining way to spend your evening. Now, I’m just waiting for someone to make a film called Myra Hindley and Ian Brady: The Early Years. There remain many unanswered questions.

Author: Julien R. Fielding

Julien R. Fielding has been reviewing films, and covering the entertainment industry, for more than a decade. Her favorite genres are sci-fi, horror, action, and anime. She authored the book, Discovering World Religions at 24 Frames Per Second.

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