Terrific suspenser with a nasty edge. Acorn Media has released The Guilty, a 1992 two-part telemovie starring Michael Kitchen (Foyle's War), Sean Gallagher, and Caroline Catz. Written by Simon Burke (the brilliant Chancer), The Guilty offers up an amazing amount of twists and turns and double-backs to its clever, dense script, creating complex characterizations fitted into a rape/murder mystery storyline that actually does deliver on that old cliché: it leaves you guessing right up to the end. No extras here, though, unfortunately.
Queen's Council Steven Vey seemingly (Michael Kitchen) has it all. One of the most successful defense attorneys in London, Vey is married to beautiful, rich Sarah (Eleanor David), and he's about to be appointed the youngest ever High Court Judge by the Lord Chancellor (Iain Cuthbertson). Having just successfully won a high-profile libel case against a newspaper―a case everyone thought was a loser for the QC―Vey is feeling his power, so much so that he takes the flirty interest of new secretary Nicky Lennon (Caroline Catz) in a direction that has tragic consequences for them both. Connecting with Nicky over drinks, she invites him up to her place for drinks, but when he makes his move and she says, "No," he rapes her.
Meanwhile, local Birmingham thief Eddy Doyle (Sean Gallagher) is getting out of prison after doing six months for nicking cars. Picked up outside the prison gates by cousin Tommy (Lee Ross) and bad guy Leo (Andrew Tiernan), Eddy is treated to a vision of what the rest of his life is going to be like when Leo and Tommy execute a smash-and-grab using a stolen car as a battering ram―obviously an act that could land just-paroled Eddy right back in the slammer. Eddy's home life isn't much better, where he clashes with his uptight father, Martin (Paul Kember), who's the local vicar. Applying for a job, Eddy finds out he's adopted, a fact held back by his fearful mother, Maddy (Marian McLoughlin), who finally tells Eddy the identity of his biological father. Eddy, distraught over this revelation, heads to London to track him down, where, after she smashes into his car, he meets lonely Tanya Penny (Carol Sparks)...as well as her roommate, Nicky Lennon....
MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS WARNING!
There's no way to discuss The Guilty without revealing its ending or the various other surprising plot turns, so this is your last chance to bail on this review before the story is spoiled for you...and it's too good a movie for that. I highly recommend The Guilty for anyone who likes British TV or suspense films; it's a solid buy. Otherwise...you were warned....
I had no idea what to expect from The Guilty when it showed up in my letterbox. I'm of course familiar with Michael Kitchen from the superlative Foyle's War, and Sean Gallagher and Caroline Catz have popped up in a surprising number of British discs I've reviewed (as a loyal 30-year Corrie fan, alumni Gallagher is welcome aboard any project I review). However, those were about the only connections I made with the title. It was only when I realized this 1992 TV movie was scripted by Simon Burke, who wrote Clive Owen's Chancer (one of the best British TV series I've ever seen), did my interest really perk up, and I wasn't disappointed. From what I read on the internet, The Guilty was specifically designed for Kitchen by Chancer producer Sarah Wilson and Burke after seeing Kitchen's scary performance as Roman in their series. And The Guilty is indeed an ideal vehicle for this actor who can walk that fine line of creating attractive yet deeply flawed characters. Looking at The Guilty from just a technical standpoint, it expertly ratchets up the suspense. Running an opulent (for this kind of story) 200 minutes, you'd never know the movie was over three hours, such is the viewer's level of involvement with the material. Burke's script has a clockwork-like intricacy to the coincidental yet fateful encounters between its characters that never seems forced or gimmicky or unbelievable in the service of merely providing some improbable thrills. There's an almost sickening feeling of organic inevitability to the film as characters move in a complicated dance that you know is going to lead to someone's death.
Welcome, too, for this kind of murder mystery, are the conflicted characters who show genuine doubt as to their actions throughout the story arc; these aren't cardboard cut-outs following the same stale genre conventions―a good example being Eddy's discovery from Tanya that Nicki never was going to be his girlfriend, an irony that undercuts our expectations about how Nicki and Eddy's relationship was progressing before she was viciously bludgeoned to death by Leo. Burke is masterful here in running his characters through a maze of coincidence that feels strangely preordained, only to have them question their own motives as well as everyone else's as events spin out of control. It's a surprisingly layered approach to what could have been just another exercise in genre clichés (it's a shame Mel Gibson didn't spot this British TV mini as remake potential, rather than the frankly ludicrous Edge of Darkness original―The Guilty's script seems tailored-made for the big screen).
Even better is Burke's Hitchcockian ability to give us a "devious, amoral hypocrite" for a villain (a description Vey readily cops to from his cheating friend, Chris, played by Peter Blythe), showing us what a rat bastard he is...before eventually turning our expectations on end by having us queasily, guiltily root for him to escape his deserved fate. Vey is a rapist, plain and simple, and director Colin Gregg makes that point forcefully. Nicki may have been unwise in flirting with Vey, or having a drink with him, or having him up to her apartment, but she clearly doesn't welcome his tentative advances in her flat from the get-go, and there's no confusing Vey's actions with "miscommunication" between consensual partners: he violently assaults her as she repeatedly screams, "No!" Faced with losing his career and his family, he first tries to placate the emotionally damaged Nicki; when that doesn't work, he fires her, and when she threatens him with exposure, he orchestrates a hit on her...unwittingly asking his son, Eddy, to do the job before he realizes Eddy is his illegitimate child (and before Eddy knows Nicki, his new friend and possible girlfriend, is the target―again, more of Burke's amazingly intricate double-blinds).
Vey is calculating and cowardly and evil to the core, even threatening suicide first before owning up to face his actions. So it's doubly creepy (and fun) when Burke clears the decks for Vey to actually get away with everything. As the plot machinations fall neatly into place, and we expect a twist of fate to finally put Vey in the dock for his crimes (as always seems to happen in these murder mysteries), events turn and he's able to completely shed all his baggage. He dumps his cheating wife, disinherits his snotty stepkids, deep-sixes the career of his best friend (who was cheating with his wife), and remains on the bench, praised by his boss for his honesty and circumspection. He's "clean." Everyone else is made to suffer for their part in conspiracy (poor Nicki most of all, obviously). Eddy has to face the fact that he was willing to entertain, however briefly, the notion that he would kill an innocent to help his new-found father, and Tanya has to live with her betrayal of her lover Eddy, when she panics and squeals to the cops about his whereabouts. Vey, however, seems not to suffer at all during the final fade-out. If he feels any nagging, perhaps troubling guilt over what he did―and he did facilitate Nicki's death just as surely as he raped her―those feelings seem coolly pushed aside―ensuring an equally cold, supremely indifferent finish to this troubling, expertly-crafted drama.
The full-screen, 1.33:1 video transfer for The Guilty doesn't look too bad in the context of other British TV releases from that time period. The image is slightly soft, with perhaps just a bit of color wash-out, along with some grain. However, fans of Brit-TV won't look twice at those anomalies―they're used to them.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 stereo audio track is decently recorded here, with a medium-range recording level, and minimal hiss. English subtitles are included.
No extras here, other than the standard (and very scant) text bios and filmographies that Acorn uses.
An absolutely first-class thriller from the U.K.. The Guilty's screenwriter, Simon Burke, fashions another complex, thoroughly ambiguous drama grafted onto a standard murder mystery framework...and then pulls out the stops to with clever twists and double-backs. Michael Kitchen, Sean Gallagher and Caroline Catz are excellent here. One of the best made-for-TV dramas I've seen this year. I'm highly, highly recommending The Guilty.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.