Longford: Next to Godliness


For Britons, the name Myra Hindley represents a particular kind of evil. “The anti-mother”, is what punk rockers Crass called her in the song “Mother Earth”. In the early ’60s, Hindley helped her lover, Ian Brady, kidnap, rape, and murder five children from the Manchester area. Four of the five children were buried in the misty, desolate moorlands of northern England, giving the killings their name: The Moors Murders. Though the extent of her participation is unknown, Hindley’s gender and crime, taken together, profoundly shook Britons’ sense of moral order.

The horror of these murders informs the somber and melancholic mood of Longford, an exceptional historical drama first aired on HBO. The film is less interested in providing a titillating tour of human cruelty than with exploring how one man could will himself to forgive that cruelty. It’s the story of Francis Pakenham, the 7th Earl of Longford, and his lonely, doomed campaign to free Myra Hindley from prison. The film doesn’t include any murder scenes. And it doesn’t play on the feelings these sorts of murders produce in us: terror, rage, and impotence. Instead, it confronts us with a very different kind of terror; the terror of being forced to face profound ethical questions and to think about our own capacity for cruelty.

“What a life!” Hindley marvels about Lord Longford in a letter to him. An idiosyncratic aristocrat who converted to both socialism and Catholicism, he was dedicated to a loving, compassionate vision of Christianity. He was also a man who prided himself on challenging the vocabulary we often fall back on when talking about murderers. In his long career as member of the House of Lords and as a campaigner for prisoner rights, he refused to approach the question of criminality in a clinical, faux-objective way or to talk about people as “inhuman” or “monstrous”. Instead of rehabilitation, he looked for redemption. Instead of banishment, he offered forgiveness.

If Longford were just the story of a flawless saint, it wouldn’t be very interesting. Fortunately, the film provides a nuanced portrait of a complicated and imperfect man. Director Tom Hooper lets hints of Longford’s repressed and redirected sexuality, egoism, and self-delusion bubble up beneath his righteous crusading.

The film’s opening sequence introduces us to a not altogether charming man. Appearing on a radio show to promote his new book on the saints, Longford looks like a slightly kinder Ebenezer Scrooge and has a voice that sounds like a mumbly, aristocratic Elmer Fudd. The makeup and facial prosthetics that Jim Broadbent chose to wear in an attempt to perfectly portray Longford is much less convincing than his fine acting. As Longford, Broadbent has a mismatched, mask-like look to him, which, surprisingly, seems to work in the movie’s favor. His unreal face reflects an identity that is not being performed, but constantly produced, constantly striving towards an image of Godliness.

In the opening sequence, the bored radio host cuts off a Longford monologue on “ideas of sanctity” to take some calls. With startling abruptness, a caller attacks Longford for his support of Hindley and asks him if he regrets it. Longford’s pained grimace, his de facto expression, turns unattractively sour and he refuses to answer. The caller persists and repeats her question. The host looks intently at the craggy-faced old man who looks a million miles away. We don’t yet understand all the implications of the question, but we desperately want to hear the answer. It’s not given until the end of the film.

That Longford can create a dramatic cliffhanger out of a man pondering questions of regret and forgiveness is a testament to the skills of Hooper and the screenwriter, Peter Morgan. Also to their credit is their allowing Longford’s Catholic faith, the most important thing in his life, to appear as such. He kneels down painfully to pray before bed; his face loses its pained expression when talking about his faith; and scenes of taking Mass are shot with an intensity that suggests the profound emotions invested in that ceremony.

However, the most imaginative and striking camerawork arises out of Hooper’s obvious interest in “totalizing” or all-encompassing institutions such as prisons. Whenever Longford arrives for a prison visit, the camera stops to take in sweeping views of the exterior architecture. Shot with a wide-angle lens and deep focus, the prisons’ towering walls seem to stretch to, and enclose, the horizon. Once Longford is inside the prisons, these aestheticized, almost beautiful, exterior scenes find their contrast in the cold and claustrophobically shot prison interiors. We see both the objective nature of the prisons, their reaching to create and seal off a little universe, and the prisoners’ subjective experience of a shrinking tomb.

Though this film is about Longford, it’s also unavoidably about Myra Hindley. Even when she’s not on onscreen, her presence, her ghost, is felt like a dark, negative space. We first meet Hindley in her fourth year of imprisonment, after she writes a letter to Longford asking for a meeting. As Longford scans the prison visiting room for the fierce-looking, peroxide blonde from the mug shot, he walks right past her. “Your entire demeanor and appearance is quite different from what I expected,” he tells Hindley later. Indeed. She’s dressed in a frumpy but attractive red cable knit sweater. She has fine, girlish features with large, soft eyes. The shadows under those eyes and on her cheeks, cast by her shoulder-length mousey black bob, give off a vague impression of a beaten but resilient young wife. Longford could be visiting her in a shelter instead of a prison.

How to present the physicality of Myra and her femininity, or lack thereof, was a huge decision for Longford’s makers. The question of who she is, as a human, a criminal, and a subject, has become inseparable from how one chooses to create a nexus out of her gender and her crime. The dominant way of viewing Hindley, and the way most opposite to Longford’s, finds its evidence in her famous mug shot. Her bleached hair is in an untidy bouffant with her dark roots glaring out; it looks almost like the late ‘70s punk hairstyles that aggressively mocked traditional femininity. Her face is blank and unemotional, but for a shade of defiance. Myra of the Mug Shot is portrayed as not just having lost her soul, like a male serial killer, but having lost her womanhood – how else to explain how she could have done that to children?

This Myra is much different than the Myra played by Samantha Morton, who looks like she could have stepped into one of Winona Ryder’s mid ‘90s Gen-X films. In his commentary for the DVD, director Hooper said that he originally envisioned an actress that looked more like the mug shot: a strong-featured woman that was handsome, but not necessarily pretty. Hooper also said that he envisioned a performance that was “harder” than Morton’s “soft” performance.

However, Morton’s quiet, almost bashful, acting fits perfectly with the Myra Hindley of Longford. Hooper and writer Morgan decided not to make judgments about who the “real” Myra was and why she helped to kill five children. Instead, they wanted to concentrate on how other people viewed, or created, Myra Hindley. But Myra as the projection of others is the “real” Myra in Longford. She actually becomes what others fantasize her to be. And, in this film, this is inseparably linked to her gender.

In a prison visit, Myra’s former lover and partner in crime, Ian Brady, warns Longford to stop spending time around her. Played terrifyingly well by Andy Serkis, Brady describes Myra as a “hysteric”. “Are you familiar with the term in its strict, clinical use?” he asks. “An hysteric is someone who gives to people, reflects back to them, what they believe makes them most acceptable… What they think others want see.” Brady says this explains why, to Longford, she’s a repentant “angel”; to her “co-prisoners and dykes”, she’s a “strong woman with a soft heart”; and to him, she’s a “brutal sadist”.

The director Hooper called this one of the “clearest, most insightful” descriptions of Hindley. Many film critics agreed, latching on to it as an explanation for her crimes. Whatever truth there may be in this profile of Hindley as someone who conforms her personality to others’ desires, it’s interesting that the scriptwriter, Morgan, would choose to use the word “hysteric”. It’s an out-of-fashion diagnostic label historically used as a catchall to medicalize undesirable traits ascribed to women. (In fact the word is derived from the Greek for “uterus”; Plato thought hysteria arose from the uterus’ frustration at not being pregnant. To this day, the International Statistical Classification of Diseases includes these symptoms of “histrionic personality disorder”: theatricality, exaggerated expression of emotions; suggestibility; shallow and labile affectivity; continual seeking for excitement and activities in which the patient is the centre of attention; inappropriate seductiveness in appearance or behavior; and over-concern with physical attractiveness.)

This medicalized, clinical language was anathema to Longford. But of course, Myra was gendered in his eyes, too. Longford described her as a “good woman” who fell under the spell of a “bad man”. He argued that, as a woman, she wasn’t capable of the same level of malevolent cruelty as Brady. Longford also makes much of the romantic undertones in the relationship between the Lord and Hindley. As Longford works to bring Myra back into the Catholic church, she speaks of her religious experiences in a sensual way that obviously pleases him: a priest “puts his hands on [her]” during her confession; she can’t sleep all night after reading Augustine’s Confessions; and when an icy and distant Hindley asks a heartbroken Longford to stop visiting her, it has the feel of breakup.

From the time of their first meeting to the time of their “breakup” we learn a lot more about Longford and his passions than Hindley and the crimes that sent her to prison. That makes sense, as this film is really concerned with Longford’s fascinating, sometimes baffling goodwill, rather than the objects of that goodwill: us. By the time we finally hear Longford’s answer to the on-air caller — do you regret supporting Myra Hindley?- we have no doubt how he will respond.

The DVD extras for Longford include a commentary track with director Tom Hooper and writer Peter Morgan — useful for the discussion of their conflicted relationship to their subjects as well as the insights into their creative and thematic decisions. There is also a short documentary, For the Record: Firsthand Accounts of the Moors Murders, which goes into more detail about the murdering of the five Manchester-area children, perhaps satisfying some viewers left frustrated by the film’s lack of the macabre. It includes archival news clips, as well as interviews with surviving family members and Longford cast and crew.

RATING 8 / 10