As a drama, A Life for a Life began in the only place that it could lure the viewer in, with a detective haring along a corridor to inform his superior that the suspect had chosen to confess to the multiple stabbing of a 12-year-old girl, whose semen-strewn body was found on remote moorland. The film called itself "the true story of Stefan Kiszko", and in this sense the script backed up its claim by refusing, from the moment of his conviction, to behave like a drama.
In most ways the story of Stefan Kiszko is profoundly anti-dramatic. Though part of his defence is that he had a mental age of 12, he worked in that temple of dull routine, the Inland Revenue, where the film was careful to illustrate his professional capability. Apart from playing accordion in a Slovenian band, he socialised with no one but his mother and aunt. After taking a hiding from other convicts, he duly spent most of his 16 years in prison going slowly mad in solitary confinement, while outside, despite his mother Charlotte's best efforts to get his sentence quashed, next to nothing happened.
All the same, it was impossible not to have sneaking doubts about the film's claim to veracity. To mark the drudging march of time we saw Charlotte planting a tree each year on Stefan's birthday. In the scene where the sapling tagged 1983 went into the ground, a solicitor turned up at the house to announce that he would fight her son's corner. I don't suppose for a minute that this was how it happened, but there's no harm in a little creative compression. However, the sins of omission were harder to accept, because it made the task of unravelling motive more tricky. A key element in the evidence which secured Kiszko's conviction was that the testosterone injections he had been given made him likely to commit the sex crime for which he stood accused. Despite dwelling on the intense bond between Kiszko and his mother, the script never explained why his sexuality had been medically activated in this way, or whether his mother knew anything about the injections.
Likewise, there was no real attempt to explain why Kiszko was betrayed so knowingly by the British justice system in which his immigrant mother put her faith. The detectives who extracted his confession were portrayed as dishonest from the start. In a scene where they interviewed Kiszko at home, you saw one of them pinching a slice of cake, as if one petty theft had semaphored a much deeper corruption.
As is usually the case in these dramatic reconstructions of legal causes celebres, the wigs were played incredibly badly, but in an odd way that only accentuated the Kiszkos' sense of isolation. As mother and son, the casting teamed an unknown debutant with a Hollywood veteran. Olympia Dukakis spent most of the film with a look of passive suffering fixed on that sweetly mournful physiognomy of hers, but she was allowed one rummage in the fireworks box when she stood before the altar and ranted against the Almighty. As Stefan, the teddy-bearish Tony Maudsley had to act in a kind of vacuum created by his character's retreat from regular social contact. It was a performance of extraordinary subtlety, in which he somehow avoided begging for pity.
It was like the Seventies in Evel Night (Sat, BBC2) too. Touch of Evel was a grand-guignol tour round the sick mind and crocked body of Evel Knievel, who put his family through torture every time he jumped, but for no apparent motive that this homage could unearth.
Thomas Sutcliffe is away