The Life and Crimes of William Palmer (1998)

 “He has more bottles in his wine cellar than in his surgery.”

lifeThe Life and Crimes of William Palmer is based on a true story, and you can discover why this 19th century monstrous rural doctor became so infamous if you watch this British television costume drama.

When the film begins, William Palmer (Keith Allen) brings home his sweet young bride, Annie (Jayne Ashbourne). He buys her a lavish gift, but this is not a sign of devotion–but a sign of out-of-control spending. They live in the small town of Rugeley in a house that also serves as Dr. Palmer’s surgery. They should be able to anticipate a modest income and a degree of respect from the community, but Dr. Palmer’s expensive tastes include an impressive wine cellar and a penchant for racehorses. It takes very little time for Dr. Palmer to find himself horribly in debt. And this is where murder enters the picture ….

Soon the bodies are dropping like flies, but interestingly enough, questions aren’t asked about the high incidence of deaths in the Palmer household until outsiders enter the drama in the form of various insurance companies. The story conveys the notion that both William and Annie come from rather problematic families. William marries the illegitimate Annie believing her to be an heiress, and Annie’s potty gin-addicted mother (who carts her pet chicken with her wherever she goes) drove Annie’s father to suicide. William Palmer’s mother is also slightly deranged, but she indulges William–except when it comes to lending him money. Neither side of the family is perfectly respectable, but in the rural setting, while rumours abound, Dr. Palmer is still above reproach.

The film includes some extremely realistic horrendous poisoning scenes. There is vomiting galore, and ghoulish Victorian style postmortems abound. It isn’t a matter of whether or not Palmer is guilty, but more a question of how this monster will be stopped. Palmer is fastidious, cold, and arrogant, and he dispatches his victims mercilessly. At times this can be relentless (the poisoning scenes are gruesome)–nonetheless, for fans of British costume mysteries, this is a riveting story. The acting is superb, the costumes are marvelous, and the sets are perfect. 160 minutes long, this is the sort of quality drama that British television is famous for. From director Alan Dossor.

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Filed under British television, Crime, Period Piece

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