Premiering tonight, the HBO movie "Longford" stars Jim Broadbent as the real-life Frank Pakenham, Earl of Longford, an esteemed but doddering Labor Parliamentarian with a soft spot for society's unwanted and condemned. Samantha Morton plays the real-life Myra Hindley, an infamous British criminal who, with her sadistic boyfriend Ian Brady, went on a killing spree of young children in 1965 that came to be known as the "Moors murders."
Screenwriter Peter Morgan ("The Queen") and director Tom Hooper (HBO's "Elizabeth I") spare us the grim details of their crimes, as if in sympathy with their main character's scrupulous piety. Even when Lord Longford finally brings himself to listen to the tape recording of Hindley tormenting one of her victims, the sound of her voice quickly fades into metaphor -- string music, of a sort heard in horror movies.
Longford, a converted and devout Catholic who also assailed against the corrosive effects of pornography, visited and pushed for the rehabilitation of prison inmates throughout his life. But Hindley, who requested his counsel and then wrote him letters professing her awakening spirituality under his tutelage, was something else.
She'd killed kids and outraged a nation, and much, if not all, of the film is about Longford's journey from righteous superiority over the tabloid crimes to emotional quiescence to them.
She was playing him, it turns out, evidently for a shot at parole -- although, the film shows, it wasn't as simple as all that. That Longford's relationship with her hastened his being put out to pasture as a politician gives the action a layered, sad quality; they're both being cast aside, and need each other.
Broadbent tends to come to the party with the look of wizening years and searching eyes. That face was last seen in the fine BBC drama "The Street," where he played a much lower-crust sort of boulder pusher. In "Longford," those eyes are framed behind owlish gold spectacles; makeup has added a bald head and wild tufts of hair.
It adds to the impression of Longford as a well-meaning, if naive and somewhat daft, do-gooder. As it opens, you'll suspect you recognize the seriousness of purpose behind this film -- a meditation on the penal system's interest, and ours, in offering rehabilitation to the perpetrators of horrific acts.
But "Longford" takes on the properties of a psychological thriller with the appearance of Hindley's lover and partner-in-crime Brady (Andy Serkis). Best known for his computer-generated portrayal of Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" movies, Serkis is chilling in his few scenes and, as it turns out, full of insight about our main characters. During prison visits with Brady, Longford learns of Hindley's manipulations. The other woman emerges -- ruthless and cruel, writing letters to her lover that mock Longford's uncomplicated approach to her conversion.
Here now, we have a story, built on deceptions, not just a famous murder case. Indeed, Brady's diagnosis of Hindley turns out to be the most salient. "A classic 'hysteric'. ... Someone who gives to people, who reflects back to them that which they believe makes them most acceptable, most likable -- what they think others want them to see."
"Longford," perhaps, could as easily have been a stage play -- a taut, four- or five-person one. But the filmmakers artfully weave in documentary footage of the period to remind us of the personal suffering and public hand-wringing the killers caused -- not to mention Longford's lonely status as a defender of human rights for someone no politician wanted to touch.
Nor in the film does Longford's campaign against the evils of porn help his public reputation. Who's going to listen to an old fool scandalized by lad rags? By then, though, you've come to know the man's penchant for grandiosity and speechifying, to go along with his courage, honor and occasional obliviousness.
All of which are brought to bear by Hindley.
In their roles, Broadbent and Morton are on-screen together only in a series of prison visits and a final scene, on a prison bench nearing the end of both their lives. As much as they've been looking at each other over the years, it's in this scene, some 30 years after the fact, that they finally seem to meet.
When: 8 to 9:30 tonight
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)