HBO rides to the rescue with ‘Longford’

Carly at the Movies column by Carl Larsen

A huge nor’easter blew in from the west on Friday, covering our little house on the prairie with booty-high drifts of snow and effectively canceling our weekly pilgrimage to the local cinema palace.

Sadly, I turned to the TV set, hoping against hope that there’d be something fun to watch amongst the 10,000 different channels available.

Hmm. “Deal or No Deal?” No deal. “American Idol?” No thanks. “Are You as Smart as a 5th Grader?” I’ll plead the 5th Amendment on that one, thank you. And the newest movie available on any of the networks, hacked up with commercial interludes? Geeze, I saw “Birth of a Nation” when it was still only pregnant!

Not even the frenetic adventures of jovial little Spongebob Squarepants could lure me into what Newton Minow once labeled “the vast wasteland of television.” Desperately, I turned to my very favorite TV channel: HBO. Would that classy, modern-minded outfit have something exciting to offer?

As usual, HBO came racing to the rescue like a St. Bernard with a keg of brandy. I settled in to watch a film I had heard about but completely ignored, entitled “Longford.” I’m sure glad I did, because it’s one of the most quietly powerful and thought-provoking films I’ve seen in decades.

It centers around Britain’s Lord Longford, and his relationship to a woman convicted of the ghastly real-life 1963 “Moors Murders.” In England, this series of homicides was looked upon as being worse than those of Jack the Ripper. They involved the kidnapping of children and all manner of bizarre tortures and killings.

Lord Longford is brilliantly played by Jim Broadbent, who I’ll always remember for his many role as diverse as W.S. Gilbert in the 1999 Gilbert and Sullivan biopic “Topsy-Turvy” and Boss Tweed in “Gangs of New York.” The character is a gentle, cultured scholar who lives the life of a true Christian: He takes people as they are, and believes no one is beyond forgiveness.

He visits the child-murderer in prison, and while others scream for her blood, he takes up her cause and begins campaigning for her parole.

She is dark, moody and mysterious, played with chilling depth by rising English film star Samantha Morton (watch for her next October in “The Golden Age,” wherein she plays Mary, Queen of Scots).

“Well,” I thought, “it’s one of those Crusader-Frees-Innocent-Victim jobbies.” But, as usual, I jumped to conclusions. Enter the woman’s co-conspirator, himself serving a life sentence. He summons Lord Longford to a visit, and reveals a completely different side of the woman. The guy’s a definite nutter, as played by the brilliant Andy Serkis (who you’ll remember as Gollum on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and as King Kong in the 2005 remake).

It’s the first time I’d seen Serkis in a real-life drama, and he’s stunningly scary. In just three brief scenes he builds a complex, nightmare character out of smoke and mirrors.

The fourth cog in this mighty wheel of fate is Longford’s wife, played by Lindsay Duncan – one of my favorite actresses in the great HBO series, “Rome.” She is torn between her loyalty to her husband and her skepticism of the lady murderer’s supposed change-of-heart.

At the conclusion of this film, so strangely calm and yet taut as a wire, the viewer is left with much to consider. It bears re-watching easily. The script is literate and concise, full of emotional action rather than car crashes, and no wonder. It was written by Peter Morgan, who has scripting credits for recent hits “The Queen” and “Last King of Scotland” both.

I really can’t praise HBO enough for their creative films and series in recent years. There was “The Sopranos,” of course, and then “Curb Your Enthusiasm” with Larry David, and “Big Love” and my two favorite miniseries of all time, “Deadwood” and “Rome.”

The company consistently aims for an erudite audience, and often teams with the BBC for projects like 2005’s under-appreciated “The Girl in the Café.” They pick up 15 to 20 Emmy Awards every year (usually leading all other winners) and always seem to have something exciting in the works.

Next May, for instance, Tom Hooper (who directed “Longford” as well as “Elizabeth I”) is helming an HBO adaptation of the best-selling biography “John Adams.” Paul Giamatti plays the title role, with Laura Linney as his wife, Abigail. Should be great fun – Giamatti in a powdered wig is something to contemplate.

Over the years, HBO has consistently either produced or distributed high-level films like “Elephant” (2003), “Lackawanna Blues” and “Empire Falls” (both 2005), and possibly the best-ever miniseries about World War II, “Band of Brothers.”

“Longford” is playing on HBO a number of times for the rest of this month. It’s one of those rare films that just keep getting more and more interesting as it flows along.

Meanwhile, Back at the Dixie:

Two exciting dramas fill half the venues at the old, nostalgic Dixie in Staunton, this week. “Breach,” starring Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillippe, is a sort of “All the President’s Men” about the CIA, and “Zodiac” stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a guy fascinated by the creepy Zodiac killer of the 1960s.

 

Carl Larsen is a regular contributor to The New Dominion. Look for his At the Movies column on Mondays.



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