Emily Watson, left, and Dominic West, center, star in "Appropriate… (Justin Slee, Sundance Channel )
The serial killer is the great human monster of the popular imagination. The odds of your actually meeting one are only slightly better than those of your being bitten by a vampire, but you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise. For a while it seemed that every new police procedural began with a naked dead woman found in a marsh. It's the third one, someone will say. We're dealing with a serial killer. But all cop shows get around to them eventually.
Compulsive and pointless, they are not your run-of-the-mill murders — they have, sadly, their "fans" — and filmmakers often glamorize them with titillating suspense and stylishness. Such is not the case with "Appropriate Adult," a British import premiering Saturday on Sundance Channel, which tells the story of Fred and Rose West (Dominic West and Monica Dolan), responsible between them for at least 11 murders, in and around Gloucester between 1967 and 1987, and of Janet Leach (Emily Watson), the trainee social worker who agreed to be Fred's "appropriate adult." (U.K. law demands a monitor be present when a minor or mentally challenged person is questioned by the police.)
Writer Neil McKay also penned two earlier fact-based serial-killer films for ITV, "This Is Personal: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper" and "See No Evil: The Moors Murders." These are famous cases in Britain, what the Boston Strangler, Son of Sam and the Manson family are to an American audience, and "Appropriate Adult" was greeted in the U.K. with a mixture of interest and (tabloid-stirred) outrage at its having been made at all. But it is as circumspect a film as one can imagine on such a subject.
The murders — including those of two West children — have been committed long before we begin, in 1994, and happily none are re-created here, only described, by the interrogating officer (a remarkable Sylvestra Le Touzel) or by Fred himself. (Rose West is mostly offstage.) In spite of the awfulness of the Wests' crimes, which included rape and torture, and indeed of the whole of their lives, "Appropriate Adult" is less sensational than most any random hour of any random American crime show. At the same time, there is no attempt to understand the couple, only to portray them: They are anomalies, after all; no useful meaning can be extracted from their story; the filmmakers resist any urge to append morality to pathology.
The excellent Dominic West is scarcely recognizable as the actor who recently represented the Handsomest Man in Britain in "The Hour." As West plays him, with great understatement, Fred is something of a simpleton, but he is not simple. He is clever in a feral way, though as confused as he is clever and as needy as he is stubborn. (One of the film's most outspoken critics, Det. Superintendent John Bennett, played here by Robert Glenister, nevertheless called West's portrayal "hauntingly accurate.")
But this is Janet's story, above all, that of the appropriate adult, and Watson is remarkable as a woman propelled by her own need to be needed, to do good and prove something to herself into a deep, dark hole, down which she floats half-dazed, like Alice. The film — which does not really convey the awful amount of time Leach spent with Fred West, some 400 hours — leaves you largely free to judge the relationship for yourself. A mystery to herself, Janet remains something of a mystery to us.
Well made and never boring — the director is Julian Jarrold ("Becoming Jane") — "Appropriate Adult" is a first-class example of what British filmmakers do well when they are not trying to look like American filmmakers: They create believable spaces whose reality seems to continue beyond the edge of the frame, then fill them with persuasive characters who speak as people do. The work itself is reason enough, and maybe the only reason, to watch the film; it is the good thing you can take away from it.