'Appropriate Adult,' a British film airing Dec. 10 on Sundance Channel, is a fascinating and tremendously well-acted look into the heart of darkness. It features Dominic West and Emily Watson doing some of the best work of their careers, and it was well received when it aired in the U.K. earlier this year (the Guardian called it "mesmerizing").
"It was something everybody advised me not to do -- certainly my wife didn't want me to do it," West said in a recent phone interview from his home in London. "It was not a popular decision in the press here until people had seen the film."
In 'Appropriate Adult,' the actor plays notorious serial killer Fred West, who, with his wife, Rosemary, murdered more than a dozen young women, including members of their own family, during the '60s and '70s. Many feared a film about Fred West would somehow glamorize the couple or otherwise minimize the damage they did to the victims and their families.
But West said the script by Neil McKay convinced him that the film offered him "a very well-written, very challenging role that I felt I couldn't give up even if it was to ruin my career, which I don't think it has yet." [See West's performance for yourself in the exclusive clip below.]
West's fans won't be able to find traces of the brash, hard-living Jimmy McNulty from 'The Wire' or the dapper Hector Madden from 'The Hour' in the film's version of Fred West, a construction worker who seemed, in some contexts, affable and even friendly. Through the eyes of Janet Leach (Watson), an "appropriate adult" or social worker who was legally required to be present for West's interrogations, viewers see the surreal disconnect between the heinous acts that West describes and matter-of-fact tone that he often employs when talking about his crimes (which are not shown, by the way).
"In the tapes that I listened to, he would constantly be looking to the appropriate adult for some signs of what was socially acceptable and unacceptable, because he had no idea himself," West said.
The actor explained that he listened to more than 100 hours of police tapes and watched the only extant video of Fred West in order to pick up his mannerisms and distinctive accent. He noted that much of the dialogue in the interrogation scenes comes directly from official transcripts.
"I think part of taking it seriously and part of the responsibility of doing a drama about him was to make it very accurate and as authentic as possible," West said. "It's very easy for a film of that sort to get very close to horror or pornography, and you have to be very careful that it does neither. I think the only legitimate use of that subject matter is to [retain] a great responsibility to the feelings of those who are still alive and who have been shattered" by the Wests' murders, many of which took place in their non-descript homes.
But the making of 'Appropriate Adult' wasn't an easy process. West filmed his scenes in one intense month in Manchester, and he recalled that had a lot of nightmares during that time.
"I played Iago shortly after, and that was another part that I found getting to me, but the advantage of that is that it's written by Shakespeare -- it's slightly elevated fiction. But with [Fred West], there is nothing good," West said. "There is no real light in there. It's all darkness, but I was very determined that I wouldn't let the bastard get to me."
Despite her best efforts, Fred West gets to Janet Leach in 'Appropriate Adult,' but one of the film's many recommendations is that it doesn't follow any tidy or predictable serial killer formulas. We see West brought in for questioning very early on in the film, because 'Appropriate Adult' isn't a cat-and-mouse game about whether the cops will catch the bad guy. It's becomes clear in the opening minutes that the Wests have done terrible things that often take Leach and even the police by surprise.
Still, there is a subtle thread of suspense that runs through the film, and that has to do with the extent of the couple's crimes. Will Leach, who is not allowed to share her conversations with West with the police, get him to make more on-the-record admissions about what he and his wife did? Investigators believed the Wests had many more victims than the ones they were able to find, and getting West to come clean about everything the couple had done becomes the social worker's secret quest.
But the film isn't a suspense thriller or a crime drama per se: It's the story of a woman who allows herself to get close to someone who is both disarmingly banal and incomprehensibly evil. West disappears deeply into the role, and creates a memorable portrait of this narcissistic yet strangely child-like man, but Watson may have had the more challenging part. Much of Leach's screen time consists of gut-churning reactions, which Watson brilliantly underplays, and some of her most compelling scenes show her trying to live a normal life with her family, which isn't really possible after she meets West.
Over time, the character finds herself wishing she could un-know everything she hears in that cramped interrogation room, yet she becomes deeply invested in uncovering the truth, and, though she is loath to admit it, her connection to West also gives her a sense of importance that would have been otherwise missing from her life.
Perhaps the most laudable thing about the film, aside from its central performances, is that it doesn't offer easy answers to the questions it raises about evil and the awful charisma that is sometimes attached to it.
"Too often, evil is commoditized and sort of neatly wrapped up in a beginning, middle and end in [television] drama, and in some ways that anesthetizes us to it, and I know that was what 'The Wire' was trying to get away from," West said. "I think at the end of the 'Appropriate Adult,' we don't feel that this nasty man is gone and we don't have to worry about it anymore."
As our interview came to an end, I couldn't resist asking West what happens to his character, the upper-crust news anchor Hector, in the second season of 'The Hour,' a well-regarded period drama that began production on its second season recently and should return next year on BBC America.
Hector, always something of a ladies' man, begins drinking and womanizing even more in season 2, the actor said.
"What it looks like is, he unravels quite a lot and that is always a good thing to play," West said. "I was always hoping with Hector, I'd be playing a sort of suave, Cary Grant figure, but it seems that Cary Grant is turning rapidly into McNulty."
Speaking of McNulty, we also talked a little about 'The Wire.' I started that part of our conversation by noting that the HBO show is regarded in many circles as the finest TV drama of all time.
"It is? Good God!" he responded. "I mean, I knew it was well-received in the States, but, well, I'm delighted."
I asked if it took a while for the now-iconic role of McNulty to have an affect on his career (as he noted, after its American debut, it took a few years for the program to be shown in England). Though 'The Wire' was low-rated during its HBO run, its reputation has only grown since it went off the air in 2008.
"I was very aware of [the show's cult status] coming home to the U.K., because no one had seen it and it was only three years in when people started watching it [in the U.K.]. They were initially a very select, secret cult of people who were watching 'The Wire,'" West said with a laugh. "That's the nature of the program, really, and certainly the nature of its success is that it was a very slow burn and more profound a burn as a result. People are still coming up to me now, saying 'I've just watched it' or, actually, most people now are coming up and saying 'I've watched it for the third time and it's great.' [The show made viewers] work hard and there was not this sort of instant payoff; I think it was the writer's objective for the payoff to be harder [to achieve] but much more profound as a result. In the same way, its success and its fame have been longer-lasting as a result of the fact that it was slower and harder to achieve."
Does he miss the role of Detective Jimmy McNulty?
"I don't really miss the role, no," West replied affably. "I always found it very difficult, particularly the accent. But I miss the people, although I do see them very regularly." He noted that he's still in touch with 'The Wire' creator David Simon and might direct an upcoming episode of Simon's new HBO show, 'Treme.'
"Part of what I like about acting is that every job is a finite entity that one does and moves on," he said of his time on 'The Wire.' "The difficulty with episodic television is that it seems to go on forever [but] it's always good to move on. Even though I spend most of my days talking about it."
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