Dir: Peter Medak
Star: Christopher Eccleston, Paul Reynolds, Tom Courtenay, Clare Holman
There’s little doubt the execution of Derek Bentley was among the worst miscarriages of 20th-century British justice. Educationally subnormal, Bentley was actually already under arrest when his accomplice, Chris Craig (Reynolds) shot a policeman on a South London roof during a botched robbery. And the infamous words of the title, allegedly yelled by Bentley at Craig before he opened fire, could easily be interpreted as a plea to surrender. If not what you’d call even-handed, Medak does well at creating a strong sense of moral outrage, as he depicts the sorry life and death of Bentley (Eccleston), a basically-good, if easily-led, kid. He falls in with the wrong crowd, who provide him with a sense of belonging not truly found at home, where his father (Courtenay) struggles to cope with his underachieving and socially-awkward son.
Add the easy availability of guns in post-war Britain – depicted in a jaw-dropping scene at school where half the kids have a firearm in their desk – and all the ingredients for tragedy are in place. It’s often the case that drama based on real-life lacks tension, because you know how it ends. Here, however, the reverse is true: knowing how it ends makes it all the more poignant. The performance Eccleston delivers, particular as Bentley gets closer to his execution, and realizes in his addled mind what’s happening, is just heartbreaking, and it’s a tremendously sympathetic portrayal.
However, Craig – too young to be sentenced to death – is not just painted as the villain, almost as much a victim of his circumstances as Bentley. Wisely, Medak avoids descending into preachiness: then again, he doesn’t need to, since the mere facts here are as compelling a case against capital punishment as any argument. Random trivia note: Judge Goddard, who presided over the case (and is portrayed here by Michael Gambon), reputedly came in his pants every time he handed down a death sentence. Now wash your hands…