If there's one thing about Christians that baffles me most, it's their passion for excommunication. In a religion that hangs so much of its raison d'être on admirable enough ideas like "judge not, lest ye be judged," the faithful seem to relish the chance to condemn others to damnation—not just for committing evil acts, but for consorting with those who do. This is an old saw as anti-Christian sentiment goes, but it kept leaping to mind as I watched Longford, a standard-issue HBO true-story period dramatization about a Christian—specifically Catholic—who flouts the tendency toward judgment and does a bit of Christlike service unto one of history's least savory creatures, then suffers for it, but never recants. It's an intriguing parable, but one that doesn't quite convince.
The period is the mid-'60s through the early '90s, when a devout Catholic British lord (the inimitable Jim Broadbent) courted scandal by first visiting, then lobbying for the parole eligibility of Myra Hindley (the great Samantha Morton), who was then and remains something like the female equivalent of Osama bin Laden or Charles Manson in the British consciousness. Hindley was the confessed accomplice and coconspirator with her boyfriend Ian Brady (Andy Serkis, who effortlessly steals the film in three short scenes) in the unimaginably brutal abductions, rapes, and murders of five kids between the ages of 10 and 17 from 1963 to 1965. These killings, which became known as the Moors Murders, cast a spell over Great Britain. Hindley's involvement seemed all the more sinister because she was a woman.
Lord Longford latches on to her femaleness as a means to argue for her right to be considered for parole. Though his reasoning smacks of condescension to modern ears (the notion that Brady was the clear mastermind and "brainwashed" Hindley into participation was given credence by the sentencing judge), it also begins to work—and she sure isn't complaining. But just as his decades-long campaign to set her free, on the very Christian grounds that everyone can be forgiven, gains momentum, Myra drops a bombshell that ruins her own chances and destroys what little is left of Lord Longford's political and public credibility. Broadbent musters dignity even through a theatrical obstacle course of bald wig, false teeth, and old-man makeup, playing the shattered old man's sense of betrayal as a pain he's happy to offer up.
Which is the real problem with the movie. Though the real-life seventh earl of Longford risked everything—and lost most of it—to cross class lines and befriend Myra Hindley, the movie version of this sacrifice plays like a blissful beatitude, just another day in the life of a dutiful Catholic. Longford features three brilliant actors in real-life roles that should have been allowed to be more complex. The result is an unconvincing diversion that stirs up a lot of ideas—about the limits of faith, about the cruelty of human nature, about the nature of what we call evil—it doesn't have the nerve to explore fully. But you can hardly blame the filmmakers. Even Jesus wasn't that Christlike.