review : True-life drama: the case for the prosecution

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The Independent Culture
"This film is not a documentary reconstruction," announced a caption at the beginning of Beyond Reason (ITV). This is, presumably, what now passes for ethics in the field of real-life drama. First you get the viewer on the hook with the promise of true-life drama (in this case, the brutal killing of Penny McAllister in 1991 by her husband's mistress). Then you get yourself off the hook of actually having to be true to life by confessing to your adjustments right away. "No endorsement has been sought or received from anyone depicted in this film," added the makers solemnly, which didn't greatly surprise you, once you'd experienced its dogged advocacy of the central character, the young woman who slit Mrs McAllister's throat when they went out together for a friendly walk.

But this was more than just a catchpenny exercise in crime drama. The script was by Lucy Gannon, a playwright who clearly had larger ambitions than merely paying her gas bill, and the actors were a definite cut above the casting directory lookalikes who often star in the tawdrier reconstructions - given their big break by the line of their chin. As drama you might have felt it a little underpowered in its plotting, oddly patient with the more banal elements of the tragedy, but on the other hand it included details which something more mercenary simply wouldn't have bothered with.

Beyond Reason effectively served as an extended contradiction of its title, that glib, almost proverbial dismissal of any act which seems to elude explanation. In this version there was a reason and his name was Duncan McAllister. Simon Shepherd played him as a shallow emotional bully, an officer who meets Susan Christie on a diving course and makes all the running. She is an ambitious squaddie with her eyes on a commission but she is sexually inexperienced, easy pray, the film suggests, for Duncan's rather casual seduction. He suggests they have an affair almost as if he is making a job offer, and his only emotional commitment, by this account, is to self-preservation.

He is cold and unsympathetic when Susan has a miscarriage, an event that allows the director to use a recurring image of her with blood on her hands and which allows Gannon to build a case for unresolved trauma. "There's no one I can talk to," Kate Hardie weeps, exploiting her particular talent for the smeary ugliness of grief. Sexual exploitation, clinical depression, emotional violence - case rests, milud, my client is clearly the victim in this matter.

But while Gannon can easily portray the husband as a moustache-twirling villain, there isn't much she can do with the wife - there's little point in alienating the jury by attacking the dead. The best that can be suggested here, of a woman who was open and friendly to the woman who slept with her husband and then killed her, is that she might have been guilty of unwitting condescension. Nor can Gannon get round the fact that Susan Christie went for her walk equipped with a knife - so she simply passes over the question of how the weapon comes to be in her car when she sets off for her meeting. It's just there on the front seat - not the object of a plan but a hideous serendipity. Such exclusions, of course, are perfectly proper for a defence lawyer, but you can imagine that Penny McAllister's parents might feel something important had been left out of the account.

"Going over a fence for me is better than having sex," said Oliver Skeete, in the slightly repetitive film Cutting Edge (C4) produced about show- jumping. If the analogy has any force he must knock a lot of things off the bedside table when he makes love, because he barely left a fence standing. But as Oliver is the sole black competitor in a world which is still coming to terms with the extension of voting rights to women, you can only wish him well in his dreams of leaping.