Dir. Julian Jarrold
(2011, Not Rated, 135 min)
What intrigues me about this film as an American viewer is its dramatization of a unique aspect of the British legal system. The title refers to a person enlisted to accompany a child or vulnerable adult during police investigations to ensure his rights during questioning. If no such person is available – such as a parent, guardian, or family member – a civilian volunteer may be recruited for the task. That’s what happened in the case of Fred West, who in 1994 was arrested on suspicion of murder and eventually confessed to nearly a dozen killings dating back to the 1970s. As a precaution, Janet Leach, a student of social work, was brought in to counsel him.
We don’t learn much more than that about the role of an appropriate adult from this film; Fred West, though clearly psychotic, seems able to understand his actions, his legal rights, and the questions of the investigators. But that’s not the problem with the film. The problem is that we don’t learn enough about Janet. There’s a great early scene in which she, after being introduced to us as a loving mother and dutiful student, is suddenly in the middle of an interrogation where Fred talks matter-of-factly about strangling, dismembering, and burying his daughter. West is played by Dominic West, and Leach is played by Emily Watson; director Julian Jarrold (Red Riding) keeps West in the foreground while off just to the side we notice Janet with a stricken look on her face, having stepped out of her world into a completely different one.
I understood her intense, almost out-of-body feeling of alienation upon being thrust into an extraordinary murder investigation, but thereafter her motivations become less clear. Even after her official duties are concluded, she corresponds with West, visits him in prison, maintains his confidence so that he’ll spill his secrets. To what end? The script by Neil McKay mostly portrays her as a selfless do-gooder in pursuit of justice, but if that’s the case why does she sell her story to a newspaper instead of telling the police? Does she feel sorry for Fred, who despite his gruesome crimes is clearly lonely and damaged? Does she perhaps develop feelings for him? If so, why does she so eagerly and easily use him to get information, and what does she get out of it? The film seems hesitant to consider these questions, so instead the second half plays like a Lifetime melodrama about One Woman’s Courage – Advocate for Evil: The Janet Leach Story.
I cannot comment on the real Janet Leach; I don’t know if the film takes liberties with her story. Her family is introduced – a manic-depressive partner and a disapproving son – but they seem to exist only to establish how much she has sacrificed for the sake of her civic duty, which after a certain point isn’t a duty at all but a conscious choice made for dubious reasons. Those reasons are at the heart of the story, but the heart is missing.