Myra Hindley (Samantha Morton) was convicted along with her boyfriend, Ian Brady (Andy Serkis), of murdering a string of children in 1964 and '65 -- one of the most notorious cases in British criminal history. Brady was singled out as the real killer and Hindley his accessory -- less evil by half, perhaps -- whom Brady emotionally manipulated. The killing of the children and burial of the bodies in the remote and moody moors near Manchester became a sensation in Britain and led to the pair being viciously ostracized even in prison.
The Earl of Longford -- "an unconventional politician whose liberal views courted controversy in the Cabinet and the national press," according to HBO -- is perfect fodder for Morgan, who also wrote yet another Oscar-nominated film this year, "The Last King of Scotland." What was going on in Longford's mind as he took up the cause of Hindley? It was an obsession of sorts that put him at odds not only with the public and his friends but even his family, particularly his wife, Elizabeth (Lindsay Duncan), though she, too, would come to support Hindley.
For Morgan, the answer makes for an emotionally unsettling, intricately nuanced story that hints at three areas of Longford's personality. First, he made a name for himself attempting to champion and rehabilitate prisoners, a socially progressive streak that lasted his whole life. With Hindley, Longford also found a fellow convert to Catholicism -- and "Longford" posits that this good and just man believed fervently that religion played an integral part in turning Hindley into "a good woman" after the fact. Last, and with judicious shading, Morgan makes viewers believe that Longford may have been falling in love with Hindley as he devoted years of his life to her cause.
At various times in the languid but always fascinating movie, these traits make the viewer's emotional connection to Lord Longford waver, then stiffen. Was he a passionately committed politician who sought justice where others feared to fight? Did his religious beliefs lead him to seek redemption and forgiveness for someone who didn't deserve it? And was his defense of Hindley blinded by love?
Morgan is a skilled dramatist and, much as in "The Queen," he doesn't want to bash viewers over the head in "Longford." This is filmmaking as character study, not straw man showboating (which a less skilled writer could have easily opted for in either movie). Aided by director Tom Hooper ("Elizabeth I" and "Prime Suspect 6"), Morgan tells his story in a way that doesn't put an exclamation point on a tidy historical story -- he opts for a question mark instead, while ultimately and satisfactorily letting the viewers in on the true-life ending.
Though "Longford" is a much smaller movie and in many ways more expressly British -- the "Moors murders" are almost unknown here, while the tribulations of the "People's Princess" are the stuff of near fairy tale -- it presents Morgan with a more difficult challenge. The isolation from a reality she didn't want to acknowledge revealed the emotional hollowness of the queen, and in the end she earned some sympathy. But Lord Longford chooses to support someone the tabloids dub "the most hated woman in Britain," a woman whose unspeakable acts are not immediately offset by her personality. So Longford the man is a tougher sell.
Credit Broadbent with a flinty, gutty performance as Longford. He's able to convey a righteousness at the beginning that's matched by a naive, infatuated wishfulness in the middle and a more sober recollecting in the end. Serkis adds a bracing, cocksure evilness to Brady that helps to unmask Longford's early beliefs. It's yet another standout performance from him.
And finally, Morton is careful not to give too much away as Hindley. The judge in the case said, "Though I believe Brady is wicked beyond belief without hope of redemption, I cannot feel that the same is necessarily true of Hindley once she is removed from his influence." And yet Brady is steadfast in his assertion that Hindley was equally guilty. And her voice was chillingly caught on tape talking with one of the murder victims.
So was she manipulated? Or did she manipulate Longford? To his credit, Morgan doesn't make the movie about Hindley or even the crimes. He focuses on one man who tested his faith and his reputation by refusing to pass judgment.