Preaching in Hyde Park: Movies, Sentimentality, and the Slave Morality.
Once in a while I’m able to watch a film that, whether the filmmaker intended it or not, prompts me to reflect on such
unfun-Saturday ideas like sin, society, and redemption. One such film, Children of Men, has been a subject of many such musings and I find that I can never sit down long enough to process these thoughts to put them down to writing and share with you, my dear reader. One other such film I finally had the pleasure (if that word can be used for the subject matter) over this last weekend and I admit that the subject matter, which was something I was thinking about before viewing the film, has taken over much of my thinking this week. The film is titled Longford and I insist on everyone who can to watch it whenever you have a chance. I do, however, add one warning: the film does not have much graphic detail but has as a central character the “most evil woman in Britain”, Myra Hindley, who was convicted, and later confessed, to the murder and sexual assault of several children; so, not the family film or the feel good flick of the year to gather around on a Sunday afternoon.
The main protagonist and namesake of Longford is Frank Pakenham, Seventh Earl of Longford who was historically a man abounding in moral virtue, intelligence, and charity but lacked the rather important cardinal virtue of prudence. Lord Longford was a Roman Catholic member of the House of Lords and served in the cabinet of Prime Minister Harold Wilson where he tried to push for the many moral and political nuances which formed his conscience. As a committed socialist and Catholic, Lord Longford was committed to the over-looked corporal work of mercy, that of visiting and befriending prisoners. It was part of his charm, and his eventual downfall, that he could buck public scorn and champion the outcast of society. However, for none of his virtues is he remembered for to this day. Rather, Lord Longford has gone down in infamy for championing the release of Myra Hindley, which is the subject of the film Longford. Myra Hindley is a name that still sends shivers down the spines of some modern residents of England. Together with her boyfriend, Ian Brady, the duo kidnapped, sexually assaulted, tortured, and murdered at least five children over a two year period. So depraved were their crimes that they even tape recorded their assaults on some of the youth, which was played in court and led to both of them being given life sentences a mere months after Britain abolished the death penalty. Samantha Morton and Andy Serkis (Gollum ,from the LOTR trilogy) give haunting performances as Hindley and Brady, giving the audience a view of the many faces of the sociopath and the manipulator.
Near the beginning of the film we see the Earl of Longford recieving a letter from Hindley, asking the good nobel for a visit and a chat. From the moment we meet Hindley it is clear that she is a brilliant manipulator and knows just what another person wishes to hear. She in time convinces Lord Longford of her remorse for her heinous crimes, insists on her reform, and even asks the good man for some books on Catholicism and perhaps a future visit. Lord Longford is taken in by the prospect of Hindley’s conversion to his cherished faith and a new crusade to free the remorseful and sanctified, forgetting that the first purpose of a justice system is to secure society and punish criminals. The long and short of it is that Longford stakes his good name and political capitol while straining his personal relationships on the idea that Hindley ought to go free because of the sentimentality of her conversion. It is only later that Lord Longford discovers how much he had been manipulated after Ian Brady shows him letters of her mocking the Earl and yet he still persists in his crusade, rubbing salt in the wounds of the family of Hindley’s victims. One moving scene involves the mother of one victim to ask the Earl, “When will I get parole from the life sentence that this woman has put me in?” It is only after Hindley confesses to additional murders does Lord Longford discontinue his campaign amidst the rage and scandal of his misguided crusade and cease all contact with Hindley. Historically, Hindley would admit that her conversion was another one of her deceitful constructions and would openly mock Lord Longford the rest of her life.
Longford is a film that reverberates a message that everyone today, and I include myself, must heed and take as a warning before our next great decision involving our good intention but absent the prudence necessary to carry out a good work. Good intentions without the virtue of prudence becomes a shallow sentimentality, which is the very thing plaguing our society today. Sentimentality is what takes our virtues and twists them into something dark and unrecognizable from the outside. Our sentimentality is the lie we tell ourselves when after our actions caused pain and suffering that we should not bear the burden of fault because we were “well-intentioned” and meant well all along.
After watching Longford I thought of two incidents which share in the folly of Lord Longford: the sexual abuse crisis in the American Catholic Church and the release of Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie Bomber who was convicted of the murder of 270 people. In the case of American Catholic Church we see a lot of sentimentality wherein the bishop was either looking out for his own name and twisting it into a virtue or was duped into believing the pop psychology of his day. Priests who had done great harm to children were sent to psychiatrists and then placed back in ministry once “reformed” to only harm more youth and damage the name of the Church Militant. Instead of calling the police, the prudent and moral thing to do when presented with claims of child sexual abuse, bishops and other superiors across America believed that psychologists could heal the depraved priests and they could soon be returned to service without the fear of punishment. However, as Theodore Dalrymple reflected in his 2002 essay on Myra Hindley, punishment is not just to “reform” a criminal but serves other functions,
The reason is that punishment is not medical treatment, that necessarily stops once the patient has recovered. It serves many other functions. And the fact is that there are some crimes that are so heinous that no earthly forgiveness or atonement for them is possible. Myra Hindley’s crimes were undoubtedly in this category…Punishment of serious crime is not double entry book-keeping, with sadistic murder on one side to be balanced by remorse on the other. Could one be remorseful in advance and therefore subsequently be allowed to commit a crime to balance out the remorse? Some deeds are simply beyond the pale: and if the abduction and murder of children is not beyond the pale, then nothing is, and we ourselves are doomed.
The case of the American Bishops is not unique to them at all in the United States. In the case of Roman Polanski we often hear his apologists using this same sentimentality of reform to justify why Polanski should not serve his rather just prison sentence. The argument goes that he is old, the crime was aeons ago, and besides he has shown remorse and been punished enough with his exile in Europe and his house arrest in a Swiss Ski Resort. All of this is, of course, inconsequential to the purpose of punishment.
Likewise, the release of Al-Megrahi is an incident where the twisted sentiments of Christian virtue were used to allow a man convicted of mass murder to go free. Scottish ministers and many defenders of the decision pointed to Christian teachings to justify the release of a man who was accused and convicted of committing the worst act of terrorism in British history. That Al-Megrahi is alive today (after prison doctors assured the public that he had a mere few months to live) and living as a free man is a slap in the face of his many victims. The Scottish ministers were correct is lauding compassion and forgiveness as virtues we should all strive for and apply across all points of civilization but failed to show anyone where either Scripture or moral philosophy states that a punishment and the consequences of our sinful acts ought to be ceased on compassionate ground. God forgives all the sins of the penitent, but He is not about to allow my sin of greed and pride go unpunished when my debtors come knocking (for which I am certainly remorseful of!).
So, to end a rather long essay, I recommend Longford as a film worth watching and discussing over in your coming weeks. Please also let me know your thoughts on it and any ideas it may have given you. Finally, pray for me, my constant reader, that I keep my own sins from being twisted into vain sentimentality.