APPROPRIATE ADULT – made for TV B+
Great Britain (150 mi – 2 episodes) 2011 d: Julian Jarrold
I miss feeling that I mattered. I miss feeling that I’m needed.
—Janet Leach (Emily Watson)
Directed by Julian Jarrold, who also directed the first episode of the immensely entertaining RED RIDING Trilogy (2009), taking the reins for another 2-part British made-for TV drama about another real life serial killer, this one set in Gloucester in Southwest England, where for a two decade period from 1967 to 1987 Fred West (Dominic West) and his wife Rosemary (Monica Dolan) tortured, raped, and murdered at least ten young girls, including some of their own children, with the distinct possibility that there may be at least two dozen more that were never found. However the story begins with but a single accusation, where police arrive at their home with a court order granting them permission to dig in the garden. Simultaneously, Emily Watson as Janet Leach has just been certified to act as an “appropriate adult,” the role assigned by the British court to aid criminal suspects who may be mentally deficient, making sure they understand the nature of the charges, acting in strict confidence, assisting defense counsel when they can, mostly sitting in on police interviews and being with the accused during on-site inspections. The police testimony freely offered by Fred West is nothing less than chilling as he describes the brutally heinous acts of murdering and then cutting up the body of his own daughter with the same matter-of-fact ease of someone describing the weather or what they had for breakfast, as it feels effortless without a hint of strain or regret. Emily Watson is utterly brilliant in the role, surprised to receive a call so soon after completing her required courses, dignified and reserved on her first case, maintaining a very low profile throughout, always underplaying her role, never resorting to theatrical fireworks, allowing the police to establish a confessional tone, but feeling drained afterwards by the graphic physical detail of the description.
Janet is a harried mother leading a busy home life with an overconcerned teenage son and several young children at home whose father Mike (Anthony Flanagan) hasn’t gotten around to marrying her yet, as he seems to suffer from emotional difficulties of his own. Thinking she’ll be gone for only a few hours, the investigation extends into days and then weeks, spending the better part of each day in police interviews where West initially confesses to a murder, and then another, identifies where the body is supposedly buried, but by the time they visit the site, he’s completely changed his story, seemingly enjoying all the attention people are paying him, in particular the appropriate adult, knowing she can’t share whatever he tells her. Meanwhile TV reporters and neighbors are discussing the grisly details of the case which Emily can’t mention to anyone, many offering their views about the couple for cash payments. While she’s immersed in the turmoil of the case, her homelife turns into a trainwreck, grown worse when Mike stops taking his medication, going on an over-stimulated spending spree, needing a lengthy hospitalization to stabilize his condition. Fred, meanwhile, insists his wife is innocent, but the body count keeps rising, including a murder that occurred while Fred was serving time in prison, where the suspect points to Rosemary, a terrorizing and intimidating woman, a former street prostitute with a gutter mouth that threatens anyone who gets too close to her, simply a force to be reckoned with. What’s unique about the film is the complete absence of splashy violence, no flashbacks depicting the crimes or a display of mutilated bodies, no crack police technology, where the story is advanced by the conflicting emotions generated from the constantly shifting narrative of the accused, playing this sly, psychological cat and mouse game, offering unique clues about more bodies to Janet, who is suddenly excused from the case by the police, as their initial investigation is over.
Other than a commercial break, there is no credit sequence to suggest a break in Part One and Part Two, but new information draws Janet back into the case, where Fred and Rosemary are both incarcerated awaiting trial, but bodies remain missing, where the second part feels less confined to claustrophobic rooms and more outwardly open, as they search distant fields, much like Nuri Bilge Ceylon’s recent ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA (2011), where each time Fred brings the police near, he believes the bodies are mysteriously speaking to him, suggesting they don’t wish to be disturbed. However, it is clear, despite the absurdity of these near misses that Fred is confessing intimate details about the crimes to Janet, including his wife’s involvement, but every time he opens up, he also just as quickly shuts another door behind him, leaving Janet ever more weary and exasperated. By the time they go to trial, Fred still refuses to implicate his wife, who may have actually taken the lead in most of the murders, as she had a savage hatred for young girls, punishing them for taking an interest in her husband. Janet is spared from testifying, due to confidentiality, but all that changes with Fred’s apparent prison suicide. The subsequent trial sequences charging Rosemary are among the most riveting trial testimony seen in recent memory, where Emily Watson brings the house down, again not with fireworks and flair, but with the utter poignancy and dignified quiet of her performance, where you can hear a pin drop throughout, making this intensely personal, but also emotionally devastating, as this entire ordeal has obviously taken its toll on her life, but the director pulls out all stops for what is a killer ending, simply a spectacular end to a thoroughly engaging, meticulously detailed story that is almost entirely described in witness testimony. Part of what makes the film so moving is that it's such an unusual family drama, contrasting two families, one that is obliterated and one that remains intact.