Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Appropriate Adult

   The lurid lives of Fred and Rosemary West have been documented in half a dozen books including 'Happy Like Murderers' (Gordon Burn), 'The Corpse Garden' (Colin Wilson) , 'Fred and Rose' (Howard Sounes), and 'An Evil Love' (Geoffrey Wansell), my favorite of the bunch. The British thriller, Mum and Dad, was an impressionistic take on elements of the story. It focused on the couple's psychopathic dynamic without directly identifying them.  Several documentaries have been doing the rounds on the telly and on youtube. Now and then, authentic Fred audio leaks out to interested parties, of which I am one. As far as 20th century criminality goes, the West story is right up there with Manson, The Moors Murderers, The Monster of the Andes (Pedro Lopez), Gacy, Dahmer, and more recently, the Jaycee Dugard/Phillip and Nancy Garrido case, and that of Austria's Joseph Fritzl, who imprisoned and raped his daughter for decades (and fathered children with her).  Considering the depth, breadth, and lengthy time frame of the Wests' crimes against women, children, and the unborn, there is a mother lode of perverted drama to draw on for filmmakers and writers.

Britain's ITV has broadcast a take on the story from an "appropriate" point of view. Appropriate Adult is an example of how you do Fred and Rose on TV without offending 99% of your audience. A truly literal movie would be closer to Tim Roth's The War Game mixed with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Deep Crimson, and Serbian Film.  You'd also need to weave in some of the most extreme Euro porn from the 70's such as Kilroy Was Here (one of Fred's favorites) and the German Violence and Slave Sex series. I'd also suggest, just for tone, you toss in some live action 'Antoine Bernhard' (look him up on this blog). In today's tender market, where something like Serbian Film is being banned and cut around the world, a graphic tale of Fred and Rose West is likely to remain the untold story.

 The producers of Appropriate Adult were clearly aware of all of the above, so, still determined to tell the story, chose an interesting point of view.  In Britain, if a person is being charged with a crime, and it has been determined that that person has learning difficulties and may be unable to comprehend what they are being charged with, an Appropriate Adult (AA) is assigned to them. In Fred's case, the AA was Janet Leach (Emily Watson), a woman whose previous experience was academic only. Needless to say, her time with the serial killer became a fiery baptism.

 Taking Janet's point of view, we only see what Janet sees when Fred is being questioned and charged,  but we also get to hear what Fred shares with Janet when the cops are out of the room or distracted. It is what Fred shares discreetly with Janet that provides the film with its more incendiary drama. Janet develops a strange, somewhat dependent relationship with Fred while he appears to be smitten with aspects of her that remind him of his true love, Anna McFall -- I say "appears" because we're never quite sure whether Fred is playing Janet for a fool or is sincere in his affection for her.  This ambiguity keeps the drama bouncing.

Although there are some visits to the house where Fred and Rose lived, loved, raped and murdered, this TV movie is mostly set in a police station and prison. Although it's quite talky, it's never less than fascinating in its limited way because West (played with enormous subtlety by Dominic West) is a compelling character, a man of contradictions who elicits both sympathy (at times) and hatred. We get to see the charmer who managed to charm the pants off the women he ultimately raped and killed. And, although it's not covered in this extremely abbreviated version of almost thirty years of mind-boggling events, West also charmed the police into believing that accusations and suspicions thrown at him were a bunch of hysterical hogwash. He was accused of raping and kidnapping years before close to a dozen charges finally stuck, but he always weaseled his way out of anything serious and happily carried on as a devoted husband to Rose and father to a brood of children whose numbers he was personally reducing in his basement.

Naturally, Appropriate Adult soft pedals Fred's true nature to easily offended TV viewers, so a rather distorted, milky picture of him emerges. The truth is, he raped his daughter Heather for most of her lifetime, and would accuse her of being a lesbian when she attempted to reject his advances. Heather's body was also shared by Fred with his brother John, who happily took Fred's rape baton. He was eventually charged. The majority of Fred's children were sexually abused or forced to witness the abuse that was commonplace in the West household, a household that was closer to a Sadean brothel than a home sweet home.  Fred was also obsessed with corpses and raped his way through the ones he created, often playing with and souveniring body parts. Because none of this is covered in Appropriate Adult "(Don't mention the war or the corpses!") , the picture we get of the man is extremely controlled and not a little inaccurate. What service such sanitization of character provides is a little uncertain to me, and this is where I found Appropriate Adult problematic.

If you want to tell a story about a shocking crime, is it appropriate to underplay the shocking aspects of that crime when it is the shocking aspects (and their implications) that made it notorious, and extraordinary, in the first place? To me, it's a little like having your cake and eating it, too -- you exploit the public's hunger for horror to reel them in, but you refuse to indulge their appetite for it when you've got them in your hand. It's the old bait and switch. I know the commercial reasons for it, but commercial reasons for anything have nothing to do with what may be right. 

 Because I know the Fred and Rose story inside out, I felt a bit cheated by the Fred and Rose Lite we get here. Although Dominic West (playing Fred) and  Monica Dolan (chilling as Rose) are totally convincing, and, yes, the production is a handsome and well written one, I wanted to see so much more, especially how Fred and Rose interacted as a couple before they were imprisoned and separated. That, to me, is what's interesting. But there is little here of  that 'Evil Love', that special connection, that inseparable partnership in which they experienced crazy love as husband and wife, parents, killers, rapists, and sexual adventurers. What kind of love survives that? What kind of love is strengthened by that? That's what's truly fascinating. That's the untold story so far.


  1. Soiled -- yes, and I like West in that.

  2. Dunno if I could stomach this watered down affair. Still got a bad taste in my mouth from Rohtenburg.

    We really must track down Kilroy. I suggest a thorough sweep of every dodgy video stall in eastern Europe.

  3. jervaise brooke hamsterOctober 25, 2011 at 12:30 PM

    I want to bugger Emily Watson.

  4. I bought a nice, used hard cover copy of Wansell's book a couple of years ago (it was near impossible to get an inexpensive new/used copy of the hc or pb editions at the time). Is the "updated" pb edition worth acquiring?

  5. I once read a review about an australian film (forget the name but it was based on a true story.) about a landlady who began having sex with her young boarder while her daughter lay in bed beside them and made nasty remarks. He eventually killed them both.

    Anyhoo, the reviewer said: "Only the two of them really understand their relationship, and of the two of them, only *she* really understands." The love between two people is sometimes not their saving grace, but a key to the evil it precedes.

  6. I m dying to see this. Dunno how to get it here Downunder.
    Ive long been intrigued by these two.
    Also how the schools did nothing about the disappearance of the children?!!
    Did you know West was involved in a bike accident when he was younger that caused severe trauma to his frontal context. This is said to cause many things including severe social impairment....
    No excuse for that crazy Rose though.

  7. Mac -- well put. 'Appropriate Adult' failed to locate that key.


    jaxflix -- well worth tracking down. Amazing how the schools made little fuss and took Fred at his word. The head trauma details is a telling one. Such a common thread with sociopaths.

  8. Did you have a head trauma as a child_

  9. Anonymopus -- I had an almighty head incident when I was about fourteen. Not realizing I was standing under a door frame, I leapt into the air as if to jump three feet off the ground. Of course, since there were only six inches between my head and solid door frame, the impact at that velocity knocked me out cold and gave me a bruise the size of a golf ball.