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“Longford”: of prison reform and redemption

I saw “Longford” after I had lunch with the film’s writer – the funny, talented, and charming Peter Morgan – a former actor with the sort of authoritative voice one finds intimidating at first blush, before realizing that it is in fact quite attractive.

Right now, Morgan is one of the most famous screenwriters in the world, the author of such films as “Frost/Nixon” (coming soon to cinemas), “The Queen,” and “The Last King of Scotland.”

“Longford,” made for television and now available on DVD, is the most recent of Morgan’s docu-dramas – a fictionalized story where he essentially dramatizes people from real life. The film’s director, Tom Hooper, is famous for his “Elizabeth I” TV mini series, a recent favourite at the Golden Globes.

In the tradition of Peter Morgan’s other work, “Longford” examines a relationship between two different people – Lord Longford, a peer, and Myra Hindley a serial murderer. Although it makes for great drama, the film’s underlying theme is forgiveness. “Longford” pushes you to consider whether it can be possible to forgive somebody even when they have committed one of the cruelest crimes in history.

The real-life Myra Hindley, a woman who murdered children along with boyfriend Ian Brady in one of the most high-profile criminal cases in history, allowed the 7th Earl of Longford to campaign for her parole.

In the film, Longford’s belief that everyone is capable of redemption, furthered by his conviction that Myra was corrupted by her boyfriend, pushes him forward against the urgings of an entire society. Myra, however, is more than she seems.

Longford is horribly betrayed by Myra, yet the story does not end there.

How do we adequately deal with criminals? Is the way the prison service is run actually helpful in making the world a better place? These are just some of the issues the film addresses.

When Peter Morgan pitched his film to Tom Hooper he told him that it is a love story between the two most hated people in England: Myra Hindley and Lord Longford. Why Longford should be hated the way he was I could not figure out. His ultimate message was one of Christian mercy.

After seeing this film, and recalling what my own father went through in jail, I found myself wanting to speak up about prison reform and the idea of rehabilitation.

For me, one of the most powerful moments in the film came when one of the parents of Myra Hindley’s victims shouted about wanting to make her rot in jail all her life. It made me think that the parent was going as crazy as Myra Hindley was when she was in the midst of her killing spree.

It also made me wonder about some Americans who book front row seats in jail to watch somebody being put to death. Should justice really come down to “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth?”

Myra Hindley’s crimes were great – they were awful beyond comprehension – but Hindley was also under the influence of a very sick man. Hindley’s victims suffered tremendously, and their suffering cannot be discounted, yet it is sad to see that despite the countless psychologists and priests that said that Ms. Hindley was no longer a threat, society went as far as attacking Longford merely for standing up for her.

“The world is a better place with Longford in it,” Morgan told me over lunch, and I believe him.

I remember now the first time I went to go and visit my father in the high security jail of Bellmarsh. The first hurdle to going to visit him was filling out the very complex paper work that was needed.

As we drove up the prison, I was shocked at what I saw: extremely high walls, little windows and barbed wire everywhere, not to mention the fact that the prison is encased in about 4 different walls, and the only entrance was a heavy iron gate. In order to go and see my father we had to pass through about 3 checkpoints. The third was almost a strip search – nothing as gentle as the pat downs they give you at the airport. They even flash a torch in your mouth (to avoid drugs being passed through prisoners kissing).

Seeing my father with two guards on either side of him, wearing what looked like a itchy grey prison uniform, I was heart-broken. Like an actress I smiled through everything: “Yeah Daddy, everything’s great! I just got A’s in philosophy” (ironically enough, I started getting A’s right when chaos erupted all around me).

I wanted to avoid the awkward conversation of: “Are you OK? Surviving? God, last week the bailiffs came, do you know where this paperwork is? Because I cannot find it.”

I cannot imagine the pain of the other prisoners, the ones that are in there for longer, and treated like rats. The only kindness they get is weird drugs handed out by a pharmacologists to numb them (how thoughtful! Drugging prisoners is a disturbing phenomenon explored in “Longford,” and I really wish the practice is reviewed by the government).

“Longford” also portrays how the paparazzi press enjoys vilifying prisoners, and I can relate to that. What my father did was wrong, but he lost he lost everything too, by the end. Still every paper in the country will not stop referring to him as “disgraced former cabinet Minster.” The idea of rehabilitation and redemption does not enter their minds.

I firmly believe we should keep being tough on crime. Yet in thinking of my father, in thinking of “Longford,” I also believe that we should keep looking for ways to rehabilitate prisoners instead of merely punishing them.

People who perform monstrous deeds are still people. Even Myra Hindley, whether we like it or not, was still a person. In dehumanizing her, we do ourselves no favours.

Victoria Aitken is the daughter of Jonathan Aitken, a former minister and member of British Parliament who was convicted of perjury in 1999.

2 thoughts on ““Longford”: of prison reform and redemption

  1. A moving and thoughthful piece. I firmly support Victoria’s message regarding rehabilitation … etc. But i must admit i have always drawn the line on certain types of horrendous crimes, such as those committed by Myra Hindley and her barabaric boyfriend. One of the saddest things i have a ever read was a report on the trial of Hindley, which included a taped recording of the way Hindley tortured a poor innocent girl before killing her. It still sends terrifying chills down my spine remembering their cruelty. And frankly, I just can’t bring myself to think of any possibility of redemption or rehabilitation for such a horrendous type of criminal. Hindley belongs in Jail, and she should rot there forever. Perhaps this shows that I am not giving sufficiently deep though to the issue … etc. But I personally cannot imgaine any redemption for a woman who purposely tortured and killed innocent children. For other lower crimes, I fully see the point of the artilce and agree with it. But for certain categories of mindless and heartless crimes, such as those of Hindley, I feel the only solution is for society to carry out a punishment on the criminal that is as permanent and harsh as he or she carried out on the victim.

  2. Some interesting points. I liked Longford, because it refused to make Myra Hindley some kind of misunderstood victim. I’m not really sure her case is the best example though. And the real Lord Longford was a hardcore opponent of gay rights who thought gay schoolmasters were more dangerous to have at large than Hindley, which I think says something about his sense of reality.

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