This three-part real crime drama about the murderer Malcolm Webster had impressive credentials to recommend it, even before it was transmitted & the jaw-dropping, grim true story hooked viewers in (and increased its audience over the three episodes) The assured quality attached to the programme from the start was its producer/co-writer Jeff Pope and its lead actor Reece Shearsmith.
Pope has produced several admirably unsensational and sensitively handled true crime dramas on notorious murderers – `This is Personal:The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper’, `See No Evil:The Moors Murders’ & `Appropriate Adult’, about Fred & Rose West. Reece Shearsmith is a superb & versatile actor, who has been giving brilliant performances in an astoundingly diverse range of roles on TV, film & stage over the last 15 years or so. He’s often been labelled a `comedy actor’ or even `comedian’ due to `The League of Gentlemen’ & `Psychoville’. However, acting is acting, whether the material is comedic or dramatic & Reece is prodigiously gifted at both.
Malcolm Webster was convicted in 2011 for the murder of his first wife Claire in 1994 and the attempted murder of his second wife Felicity in New Zealand in 1999 in staged car crashes. He planned to marry a third woman, Simone, bigamously, following his return to Scotland after fleeing arrest in New Zealand. The immediate motive for his crimes was greed, including benefiting from real & forged life insurance policies. What `The Widower’ showed though, in horribly fascinating detail, was that the need to be in control was an overriding urge in Webster and the primary way he functioned. It is what drove his monstrous actions as much as base greed. That sinister side was submerged beneath a personality of unthreatening banality – a mundane man who gained the trust of three strong & intelligent women.
This duality which allowed him to do what he did and get away with it for so long is the narrative linchpin of `The Widower’ and that it succeeds so compellingly is due in large part to the multilayered, outstanding performance given by Reece Shearsmith as Webster.
The script traces the years from Webster’s marriage to his first wife Claire Morris in 1993 to his arrest in 2009 – 15 years focused on one man, his character and behaviour. It’s a demanding and multidimensional role (showing the various aspects of Webster’s personality over that time frame) but Shearsmith’s beautifully nuanced performance expertly portrays these complex traits, the ones Webster publicly displayed & those he hid and compartmentalised. There is the plausible front, with the sliver thin surface charm of caring and kindness he deployed in his relationships with women. It was a masquerade that quickly descended into irritation and petulance at the slightest challenge to or questioning of his plans & decisions. There is the sniping criticism & peevish complaints as his passive aggressive, controlling nature begins to reveal itself along with the flashes of real anger when things don’t work out in the way he so carefully planned.
All these emotions flit across Shearsmith’s expressive face & are subtlely shown in his body language or hinted at in his tone of voice. Reece must have immersed himself in Malcolm Webster’s world and mind (as far as it was really knowable) – all his demons, urges, longings, motivations & inadequacies – to reach this level of complexity & convey Webster’s particular psychopathy so brilliantly.
There are several standout scenes in Shearsmith’s astounding performance that will stay with me in particular: The one-way conversations with his comatose wives he’s drugged as his need for control reaches its zenith – startling soliloquies of disturbing self-justification for his actions, aggrievedly blaming the women for driving him to it; the whispered, plaintive monologue at the grave of his first wife in which he deludingly squares in his mind that the staged car crash was an accident; the way he practices his performance of a grieving husband, tears rolling down his face which he stops dead in a second with an approving slight nod of the head. There is the head shaving scene (done so Malcolm can convince his next conquest Simone that he has leukaemia) in which Reece shaved his head for real. It is emotionally and visually visceral and its impact so starkly gruesome that I felt upset just watching it. Finally, there is Simone’s confrontation with Webster, when his years of deceit finally catch up with him. His eyes become dark pools of desperation and anger as it dawns on him that his life & the world he’s created for himself are collapsing.
The major achievement of `The Widower’ is that it makes the psychopath that Malcolm Webster was so believably human. The phrase `the banality of evil’ never felt more real or meaningful.
The series was superbly scripted and directed, but its Reece Shearsmith’s remarkable performance that makes `The Widower’ so grimly hypnotic and such mesmerising, memorable television. It really is worthy of a Bafta for Best Actor.