Saturday, December 29, 2007
LONGFORD (2006, UK/USA, Tom Hooper, Peter Morgan screenplay)
If people think that makes me weak... or mad... so be it. That is the path I am committed to. To love the sinner, but hate the sins. To assume the best in people, and not the worst. To believe that anyone, no matter how evil, can be redeemed... eventually.
Here's an overlooked film that's 100% Soul Food, an HBO production that premiered at Sundance in 2007. Lord Longford (a transformative portrayal by Jim Broadbent, who also happens to have played Professor Kirke in THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE) is a British aristocrat whose outspoken Christian faith led him to champion the cause of Myra Hindley, the notorious serial killer involved with England's horrific "Moor Murders." The SF Chronicle aptly calls the film "languid but always fascinating," the story of "one man who tested his faith and his reputation by refusing to pass judgment."
Longford's Christianity is front and centre throughout. Just as with the historical events, this smart film doesn't make up our minds for us. Is he is a well-meaning but misguided Pollyanna whose "look on the bright side" religiosity makes him an easy mark for a manipulative criminal? Or is his the authentically Christlike choice, the hard way of radical obedience that follows Jesus to a shameful cross between thieves?
The title of Peter Stanford's Longford biography points up something essential in the man when it dubs him "The Outcast's Outcast": in championing the outsider - as well as other unpopular causes - this man who was at one time the leader of the House of Lords makes himself a pariah. Broadbent's thoroughly embodied performance suggests the sort of upper class softness and eccentricity lampooned in endless Monty Python sketches, at the same time as it suggests the possibility of Longford's sanctity - or at least a thoroughgoing humanity and a divine humility. At the outset, Longford plumps his latest book for one of those smarmy BBC talk show hosts;
Host: So many questions to ask you, such a long and *distinguished* career. But I'm gonna start with the book. What prompted you to write it?
Longford: As a lifelong Christian and scholar, I've always been interested in ideas of sanctity. But more than that, I think it was probably the entirely selfish desire to spend a little time with my heroes.
Host: Your "heroes"?
Longford: Yes, that's what the saints are - my heroes, friends, intercessors.
Host: Interesting! Right...
I wasn't a long way into the film before I thought, "This reminds me somehow of THE QUEEN." Sure enough, the screenplay is by Peter Morgan, for whom 2007 was a big year: LONGFORD won him the BAFTA TV Award for Best Writer, THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND won him the BAFTA Film Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, the award for which THE QUEEN was nominated. Also in 2007, the stage play FROST / NIXON travelled from the West End to Broadway.
Samantha Morton's canny performance as Hindley beautifully serves the script, RSC actress Lindsay Duncan's Lady Longford is exquisite, and Andy Serkis brings fire to the film whenever he's onscreen as Hindley's psychopathic lover - a character as memorably evil as Broadbent's Longford is memorably decent. (Premise for a film: Gollum summons Digory Kirke to his prison cell...)
The fact that this is an HBO picture, as was THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE, makes me wonder if there's an exec there with some sort of interest in the Christian faith. Both films are substantial studies of the faith playing itself out in unlikely ways, in unexpected people.
AMAZING GRACE, DEAD MAN WALKING, THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE
Available at Videomatica
See also the National Catholic Register review by Steven D. Greydanus