Once upon a time, the English were quite proud of their murders. The public knew the names and the details of husbands who had poisoned their wives — domestic problems that got out of hand. George Orwell wrote an essay once about “the decline of the English murder,” as if to say that those desperate small killings had gone out of fashion. Divorce seemed so much easier. But the British public was taken aback by the horror and the pointlessness of the “Moors murders.” It was as if some new nihilism had taken over.

There were five killings, of children and teenagers, and they occurred in 1963. A young couple, lovers and partners in sadomasochism, made a practice of kidnapping or luring their victims into a vehicle. Then they killed them, in one case making a tape recording of their victim’s last pleas and misery. Finally, some of the bodies were found buried on Saddleworth Moor, near Manchester. The killers were named Ian Brady and Myra Hindley and in 1966, in court at Chester, they were given life imprisonment. Brady was a killer in three charges, Hindley a killer in two and an accessory in one.

It was a close call: The death sentence for murder in Britain had been abandoned only a short while earlier. The judge at Chester allowed that Brady was “wicked beyond belief without hope of redemption,” but he was not sure the same was true of Hindley, “once she is removed from his influence.” Perhaps he was being sentimental, because Hindley was a woman. But that’s how Longford got involved.

Francis (or Frank) Pakenham was an aristocrat (Lord Longford, with an estate in Ireland). He was 60 at the time of the sentencing and a member of Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s cabinet. He was regarded as a bit of a crank, in a sweet, good-natured way — a man in whom kindness mixed with a lack of worldliness. He had causes, one of which was prison visiting. He believed that wickedness could be overcome and he felt that most prisoners had a right to earn parole. That’s how he got interested in Myra Hindley.

That’s really all you need to know, before you see Longford — one of the most engrossing of the new British films — and the shot in which Longford (Jim Broadbent) searches in the visitors’ room at Holloway Prison for Myra Hindley. He expects a blonde: In all the press pictures, she had blond hair. But in prison she has gone back to brown. She sits off to one side, because she is a pariah, abused by other prisoners and fearful that they will read her lips. Longford sits down and, before long, he is telling her she has a nice smile — she does, though you have to judge whether it is Myra’s or a smile from Samantha Morton, the actress in the role. “That’s the first kind thing anyone has said to me for so long,” she says, and in a second her flat gaze grows in personality and attention. Longford doesn’t notice, but noticing was not his strength. We see it, and we can marvel at Ms. Morton and begin to understand Myra Hindley. Later in the film, Ian Brady will say that she was the manipulator, the one who made him do it.

Longford plays at Sundance, and it will be aired by HBO (the company that made it) on February 17. It is directed by Tom Hooper (Elizabeth I) and written by Peter Morgan (who wrote The Queen). It is a brilliantly made character study, a film over which finally we can all make up our minds. But don’t be surprised if you have the rare feeling — without a single scene of overt violence — that you have looked evil in the face.

Brady and Hindley are in different prisons, of course, but maybe they write to each other — or maybe they have a way of communicating that hardly needs words put on paper. But as Lord Longford goes to see Myra more often, he gets an invitation to call on Brady. Brady is Andy Serkis (from King Kong and The Lord of the Rings), and he is as still and startling as the first glimpse of Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. “Leave her alone,” he tells Longford, “she’s mine.” Yet Brady is worried that his influence is slipping. Myra is being converted to Roman Catholicism, just as Longford had been earlier in life. She is reading good books. She goes on the occasional supervised visit outside the prison walls. “Don’t trust her,” says Brady, “it’s all a trick.”

Longford wavers. His wife — author Elizabeth Longford (Lindsay Duncan) — hates his involvement with Hindley. Until, one day, she reads Myra’s letters and becomes a convert too. I’m not going to say anything about how it ends, and if you’re not English it’s likely that you don’t know. The film is very balanced: It allows the possibility that Myra might have been led and dominated by Brady, that she might be truly sorry and “redeemed.” But what is redemption? And how does a young woman survive in a prison where everyone hates her unless she is quite exceptionally strong, or prepared to play that part until the end?

Yes, it’s a British story, and Longford (wonderfully impersonated by Broadbent) is a very English figure — noble, lofty, but not too bright. But our own governor has just told us that California has about 170,000 inmates in prisons fit to hold 100,000. Unless the state builds more prisons, judges will order some prisoners freed. Are there crimes beyond redemption? I dare say that in Britain no government would ever have released Brady or Hindley for fear of public reaction. (It’s like Manson here.) Yet, as this film makes clear, locking people up does not stop their damage. Anyone capable of imagining Brady or Hindley can be reached by their wickedness. In which case, we come back to a dirty trick the movies have offered for a long time: They often make evil into a pretend game we play. (That’s what Lecter amounts to.) But then a film as grave as Longford makes evil as piercing and unmistakable as eyes looking at us. And virtue requires that we recognize it.

LA Weekly