It's a film about Derek Bentley, starring Christopher Eccleston. It's an earnest account of the historical facts and I suspect that it contributed to clearing the dead man's name.
Derek Bentley was hanged for the murder of a police officer in 1953 under contentious circumstances. He and a friend, Christopher Craig, had been trying to burgle a warehouse. Craig was the one with the gun. Craig was the one who started shooting when the police showed up. Bentley on the other hand did nothing violent to anyone, although admittedly he was carrying a knife and a knuckleduster that Chris had given them. He was even technically under arrest when Craig at last managed to kill someone with his wildly inaccurate gun. Bentley's involvement in the incident was: (a) being an accomplice in the attempted burglary, and (b) supposedly shouting "let him have it" before Craig opened fire. (His lawyer argued that this could just as easily have meant "give the gun to the policeman".)
Craig was 16 at the time, so couldn't be hanged. He went to prison for ten years and eventually became a plumbing engineer. Bentley, on the other hand, was 19. He was also a near-retarded epileptic with a mental age of eleven and a reading age of four, but that didn't matter. He was old enough to hang and so he duly did.
The legal factors that made this possible were:
(a) He was being tried under the "joint enterprise" principle of English law, which meant that a manslaughter verdict wasn't available. If Craig had committed murder (which he had), then that was the crime up for discussion. The jury tried to wriggle around this anyway by finding both guilty but with a plea for mercy for Bentley, but the judge was having none of it.
(b) The concept of diminished responsibility due to retarded development wasn't introduced into English law until 1957, so Bentley's low intelligence wasn't taken into account. All that mattered was that he wasn't insane or feeble-minded according to the Mental Deficiency Acts.
(c) There was a public outcry and an appeal. Over 200 MPs signed a petition to get a pardon, but the Home Secretary turned them down and banned Dr Hill from making public his psychiatric report. Parliament wasn't allowed to debate Bentley's sentence until after it had been carried out.
(d) The judge was Lord Rayner Goddard, known for his strict sentencing and conservative views. He kicked back the jury's request for clemency. In 1970, apparently he claimed to have thought all along that Bentley would be reprieved and blamed the final outcome on the Home Secretary. That's Olympic-standard buck-passing, that is. Bentley's lawyer on the other hand wrote that Goddard had told the Home Secretary to ignore the jury's recommendations and hang the boy. Forty years later, Bentley won a posthumous aquittal (partial in 1993 and full in 1998), which was on the grounds that Goddard's summing-up to the jury was so biased as "to deny the appellant the fair trial which is the birthright of every British citizen".
Incidentally, his valet has claimed that Lord Goddard would ejaculate when passing a death sentence. His trousers would then have to be sent for cleaning. Michael Gough plays him here and he's hateful, crossing over into the land of evil when he says of a knuckleduster, "Have you ever seen a more horrible weapon?" It's a second speech for the prosecution, basically. However I didn't notice Gough suggesting white wee-wee.
So that's the history. What's the film like?
Well, it's not much fun. There's very little humour, although I was amused by the scene where Eccleston's intimidated by a sexy shop assistant who seems to like him. The first half of the film is just Eccleston/Bentley living his sad life and doing no one any harm. He has a habit of getting into trouble, but the film suggests that he's almost never the one who initiates it. Bad people latch on to him and he doesn't have enough between his ears to be able to push them away.
Eccleston doesn't play him as a moron, but then again he wasn't a moron. A mental age of eleven isn't Down's Syndrome. Eccleston's very good, needless to say, and his final letter (dictated to Michael Elphick) is a particularly memorable scene.
The key figures are the hoodlums, obviously. Craig (Paul Reynolds, then also in Press Gang) is both unpleasant and pathetic. He's emulating his scarier brother (Mark McGann), carrying around guns and filling his head with American gangster movies. He swaps guns with the other boys at school. You'd cheer if he walked under a bus, but at the same time it would have clearly been wrong to execute someone whose teenage brain was basically still soup and it's no surprise to learn that ten years later he'd become a normal bloke.
Look out for Craig's teacher, by the way. It's a tiny role, but he looks like a vampire and he's Murray Melvin, later to play the Evil Gay Bilis Manger in Torchwood.
This film is pretty much exactly what you think it is. The first half's honest, but fairly dreary. Bentley starts making bad decisions, but by that point we're approaching a certain gunfight and the film's about to turn on its head. The courtroom stuff is extreme enough to be a criticism not so much of capital punishment per se, but more specifically of indefensible courtroom practice and terrible legal decisions. There's also a plot hole that the filmmakers created by making an upset Eccleston have a go at Craig for killing that policeman, which increases our sympathy for the character but then makes you wonder why no one mentioned it at the trial. Strong scene, but it damages the plot logic. I feel a bit bad for pointing that out, though, because this isn't a "sex it up" film. This is a sober reconstruction of a powerful story, with the real Derek Bentley's sister as a production adviser.
This film came out in 1991. The first stage of Bentley's pardon went through in 1993. If there's any connection between those, then perhaps some good was done. It still wouldn't begin to make up for what happened to Derek Bentley, though.