The story of Catholic convert Frank Pakeham, the Earl of Longford, and “Moors murderess” Myra Hendley is unfamiliar to many Americans, but the award-winning British TV movie Longford — scripted by The Queen scribe Peter Morton and directed by Tom Hooper (Elizabeth I) — efficiently establishes the key facts.
What emerges is a stunningly nuanced and spiritually aware exploration of the Christian precepts of forgiveness, corporal works of mercy (visiting prisoners), and the beatitude of persecution for righteousness’ sake.
Lord Longford (uncanny Jim Broadbent), then-leader of the House of Lords and an eccentric but devout Roman Catholic well known for his work visiting prisoners, courts controversy and notoriety when he starts visiting one of England’s most notorious and vilified prisoners. Myra Hendley (ambiguous Samantha Morton), along with Ian Brady (chilling Andy Serkis), was convicted in the mid-1960s Moors murders case, which involved kidnapping, sexual abuse, and murder of children.
Hendley is also a Catholic convert, and Longford encourages her to return to the Church. At the same time, he campaigns for her right to a parole hearing, braving public criticism (“Lord Wrongford,” he is dubbed in the media) and even resistance from his usually supportive wife (Lindsay Duncan). Longford also touches upon its subject’s anti-pornography crusade, including his infamous visits to strip clubs.
Though thematically similar to Dead Man Walking, Longford grapples more directly and thoughtfully with religious themes, and doesn’t glorify its eccentric, somewhat tragic protagonist the way Dead Man Walking extols Sister Préjean. There are hard questions about Longford’s efforts on Hendley’s behalf. Did he need another cause after losing the leadership of the Lords? Had he fallen under Hendley’s spell? Was she beyond redemption? Was he only fooling himself reaching out to her?
Above all, was it ultimately worth it? Longford provides no easy answers, but its engagement of the questions is among the most thought-provoking and rewarding I’ve seen in any film.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.