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‘Let Him Have It’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 24, 1992

Derek Bentley is a good lad, harmless and puppy-sweet, but he always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even as a child, when he and his pals would indulge in some mischief, inevitably he would be the one left holding the bag. He was a born patsy.

This would be the pattern for his whole life, which ended tragically with his death by hanging for his involvement in a murder he didn't commit. Peter Medak's surprisingly dim film, "Let Him Have It," is based on Bentley's 1953 case, which was notorious in England. Questions of Derek's innocence aside, the accused also had epilepsy -- which left him, at 19, with a mental age of 11 and an IQ of 66. None of this would come out in the two-day trial, in which Derek's pal, Chris Craig, who actually did the shooting, was sentenced to indefinite imprisonment (he served 10 years). Nor were Derek's parents or any other character witnesses ever called to attest to Derek's condition. Instead, the case rested on the words Derek supposedly screamed out to his friend on the rooftop to which they'd escaped after being caught burgling a warehouse: "Let him have it!" What supporters said were words urging Chris to turn over his gun were interpreted in court as an incitement to violence.

The result was what most believed to be a gross miscarriage of justice. Never before in English history had anyone so young and with his unique disabilities been executed. There had been an immense public outcry in his support, and, give his circumstances, widespread belief that he would be reprieved. But luck was not on Derek's side; it had never been.

Medak, whose last film was "The Krays," takes a honorably straightforward approach to the telling of Derek's story, and one that never attempts to hide its passionate advocacy. He gives us the complete downward cycle of Derek's life, from beginning to end. Derek, who's played soulfully by the magnetic Chris Eccleston, is a victim of baffling circumstance. The world never quite makes sense to this painfully shy, embarrassed boy. For the most part, he hides away in his room, hermiting himself to stay out of trouble and to avoid the penetrating stares of neighbors, who see him as a kind of pitiable freak. His doting sister Iris (Clare Holman) attempts to draw him out, taking him for walks and introducing him to friends. But, however well-intentioned, her efforts only thrust him into the line of fire.

Once out of his room, he begins to mingle with a band of small-time hoods led by Chris, who sees himself as a gangster in the Cagney mold. Under Chris's influence, Derek imagines that he's like everyone else, normal; he even becomes something of a dude, plastering down his undisciplined nest of wavy blond hair and wearing a natty, electric-blue suit jacket. This period of emergence is short-lived, though, and, having decided that Chris is bad news, he's back in his room, determined to go straight.

It's the smoldering subtlety of Eccleston's performance that, early on, draws us into the film. This young actor, who's making his movie debut here, has mesmerizing, deep-socketed eyes, and he makes Derek's opacity fascinating. We keep trying to decipher the thoughts circulating behind his brow.

The film's best moments are the sweet exchanges between Derek and his sister, who lavishes him with such affection that he seems more like a boyfriend than a brother. Derek's parents, too (played by Tom Courtenay and Eileen Atkins), treat their son as if he were blessed, not afflicted, an innocent suspended forever in childhood.

The rest of the film feels wan by comparison. Once Derek is arrested and put on trial, the events seem inevitable, predictable. We know precisely what's going to happen long before it happens. At this point the movie's social agenda takes over; it becomes an editorial against the atrocity of capital punishment, and the personal details, the emotions, are obscured. As a result, the movie falls into two halves, and, therefore, is about half good.

"Let Him Have It" is rated R for strong language and violence.

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