A Tale of Injustice
At 9am on the 28th January, 1953, Derek Bentley was hung for murder, or to be more specific for saying the words "let him have it, Chris" which were taken as an insightful command for Chris to shoot. But there lies the problem, did Derek Bentley mean for his friend to shoot or was he telling his friend to hand over the gun. And it is that series of words and the ambiguity which lead to out cries from the public over the death sentence, the tireless campaigning of the Bentley family to not only over turn the judge's decision but as it turned out to get Derek a posthumous pardon which was finally granted in 1998.
"Let Him Have It" is the story of Derek Bentley starting with his childhood where it was discovered he suffered from epilepsy and was arrested along with another boy for supposedly stealing tools which he was sentenced to serve 3 years for at the Kingswood approved school. Found to be illiterate with a mental age much lower than his own, he was released from the Kingswood school returning to live with his family in London where he became a recluse, not leaving the house for the first year.
What we watch is how Derek became friends with 16 year old Chris Craig, a wannabe gangster and younger brother of a London gangster called Velvet. You could easily say that this friendship lead Derek into trouble as Chris not only had a fascination with guns but the James Cagney gangster movies of the time, imitating his hero as he dressed like a young hood. Their friendship lead to the night of November 2nd, 1952 when they were caught trying to break into wholesalers Barlow & Parker where Derek started shooting, killing one policeman, injuring a detective and Derek uttering those works "let him have it, Chris". Following this and their arrest they were both tried where Chris Craig being younger was spared the death penalty whilst Derek was sentenced to death by hanging.
It has to be said that "Let Him Have It" is an amazingly powerful and a well crafted movie, building the case to suggest that Derek Bentley was not only innocent but also a victim of a justice system hell bent on getting "justice" for the death of a policeman. It brilliantly tells the story of Derek demonstrating that he wasn't like your average 19 year old, that he was of a lower mental age, not so much simple but naive and also that through his insecurities ended up falling in with the wrong crowd, not fully aware of how wrong a crowd they were. As such it automatically makes you feel for Derek as you can see that he wasn't a nasty person in fact he is shown as a nice young man.
Having painted the picture of Derek's young life, his epilepsy and his involvement with Chris Craig it recreates that fateful night where he uttered the words "let him have it, Chris" and perfectly demonstrates the ambiguity of them. And then we become fascinated as we watch the court case which becomes more and more powerful as you get a real sense that the judicial system was intent on one thing and getting blood for the death of a policeman. It's stunningly powerful and steadily racks up the intensity and emotion especially following the sentencing as we watch his family do everything they can to get a reprieve and how the British nation got behind them.
As such "Let Him Have It" is one hell of a powerful story and director Peter Medak handles it brilliantly, obviously siding with that of Bentley and his family as he shows that he was innocent but at the same time also demonstrating the ambiguity of the words "let him have it, Chris". But it's not just the handling of the story which Medak does so well but also in the recreation of the era, the authenticity of London in the early 50s and in doing so creates some stunning shots. The scene outside the Bentley's home when his father collects the last letter is so poignant, so stunning and so beautifully shot, the same as the scene in the houses of parliament. "Let Him Have It" is a movie which stuns with its beauty yet hits you with a powerful true story at the same time.
And "Let Him Have It" is not let down when it comes to the acting with Christopher Eccleston putting in one of his finest performances as Derek Bentley. Eccleston manages to find the right angle when playing Derek not playing him as simple but showing that he was more naive thanks to his lower mental age. And at the same time he also gets across how Derek was basically a nice kid, but like all kids had a sort of teenage tear away side as he was subjected to almost peer pressure. Eccleston is equally matched with a brilliant performances from Tom Courtenay and Eileen Atkins as Derek's parents William & Lilian whilst Clare Holman finds the right level of emotion as Derek's supportive sister Iris, touching in her love for her brother.
The only negative and it really is a minor negative is Paul Reynolds as Chris Craig because there are times where he just over eggs his performance, taking the James Cagney imitations a little too far. It's just a minor issue but one which sadly stands out when compared to the acting of Christopher Eccleston.
What this all boils down to is that "Let Him Have It" is a stunning movie which brings the true story of Derek Bentley magnificently to the screen. It manages to highlight the injustice which was done whilst also delivering the power and emotion of the story which is capped off by some brilliant performances especially from Christopher Eccleston who is at his best as Derek Bentley.