“They come up with their story. We come up with ours. The jury gets to decide which story they like the best. The best story wins.”
It was with the introduction of Ralph Stone (Con O’ Neill) that I knew I was going to really enjoy Criminal Justice, a 2008 BBC mini-series. Up to that point, Criminal Justice seemed to heading into fairly familiar crime territory, but Stone’s appearance got my attention and kept me focused. This is not a tale of a crime and its solution (although that does happen along the way)–rather this is a story of how the criminal justice system works, and how those wheels grind on when someone becomes caught up in a web of crime.
The story begins with a young, thin asthmatic man called Ben Coulter (Ben Whishaw) playing football and scoring a goal. Hyped up and feeling good, Ben goes out for the night to meet a friend. When his car doesn’t start, he doesn’t hesitate to ‘borrow’ his dad’s taxi. Ben finds it funny that he can’t disable the taxi’s “for hire” sign, but then when he stops, a young girl, Melanie Lloyd (Ruth Negga) jumps into the back seat of the taxi.
With Ben’s friend cancelling their plans, Ben has nowhere to go, but Melanie, who’s so obviously the stronger, more dominant character of the two, suggests they go to the seaside. They enjoy each other’s company and end up spending the night together. The next day Melanie is dead. Given the weight of the forensic evidence, it looks like an open and-shut case with Ben, who couldn’t possibly look any guiltier, rather pathetically trying to clean up the crime scene and then even fleeing the scene.
Stone, the duty solicitor reeks of the ambulance chaser. His clothing is rumpled, his hair could do with a good wash, and to top it all off, one of his feet is wrapped in bandages, but we can still see the naked irritated skin which oozes with eczema. If Stone showed up to defend me, my heart would sink, and it doesn’t help Stone’s image that he almost immediately tells Ben to “shut up” and that he doesn’t want to “be stuck with the truth.” Stone has a point. Yes he may be a nightmare when it comes to image and confidence-building, but and here’s one of the best points of this mini-series, he’s intelligent, cunning, and a brilliant strategist. Stone really can’t be bothered with the truth. It simply doesn’t matter. He understands that all he has to do is create a reasonable doubt in order for his client to walk, and that is Stone’s intention.
There are five episodes to this mini-series. The plot delves into alternate strategies tackled by Ben’s barristers, the snooty, autocratic Alison Slaughter (Lindsay Duncan) and the inexperienced Frances Kapoor (Vineeta Rishi). While Ben’s case builds to the courtroom scenes, Ben’s life inside jail is a major part of the story. Ben becomes friendly with cellmate Hooch (Pete Postlethwaite) who offers advice on learning to live in the joint. Meanwhile, Ben racks up enemies. Freddy Graham (David Harewood), the con who runs the jail, owns a piece of everyone, and his attention settles on Ben.
When the story began, I expected the plot to become a police procedural, and that probably says quite a bit about the formatting of films. After all the murder is committed, the suspect is arrested, so now the hunt is supposed to begin for the person who is responsible. But Criminal Justice doesn’t immediately take that well-worn path. It’s a nice twist to Criminal Justice that Ben screams suspect so loudly that the police think they have their man. And perhaps they do. While some reviews state that Ben is appealing, I did not feel that way. Under Ben’s frailty, there’s something a little odd. But does that make him a murderer?
On the positive side, the script included good and bad prison guards (a nice mix) and then an entire range of those who work within the criminal justice system–those truly interested and concerned, those who just want to get the job done, and those who get too involved. The courtroom parts were excellent, and we see witnesses who can be led, those who can be bullied, and those who do not stand up well to cross-examination.
On the negative side, and I think this was the poorest part of the film, the plot went a tad overboard on the jail scenes. Hooch was well…not to spoil the plot, but a character who was developed in an unfortunate way…
On another note Criminal Justice has a nice underlying thread which reveals the class system at play. Stone feels the class barrier between him and the barristers, and there’s a great scene in which the investigating officer, “talented oppressor” Box (Bill Paterson) and Slaughter assume that lowly PC Jeary (Sam Alexander) cannot speak French and patronise him accordingly.
At almost 4 hours, this was great entertainment except for part of episode 5 which went too sentimental in its Lone Ranger bent, but the final shots were a pleasant blend of what was lost tinged with a muted and stained optimism.