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Beyond Reasonable Doubt


New Zealand 1980 127 minutes


Director: John Laing

Producer: John Barnett

Screenplay: David Yallop

based on his book Beyond Reasonable Doubt?

Cinematography: Alun Bollinger

Editor: Michael Horton

Music: Dave Fraser


Leading Players:

David Hemmings (Inspector Hutton)

John Hargreaves (Arthur Allan Thomas)

Tony Barry (Detective John Hughes)

Martyn Sanderson (Len Demler)

Grant Tilly (David Morris)

Diana Rowan (Vivien Thomas)

Ian Watkin (Kevin Ryan)

Terence Cooper (Paul Temm)

Marshall Napier (Constable Wyllie)

John Bach (Detective Murray Jeffries)

Bruce Allpress (Detective Stan Keith)

Bruno Lawrence (Pat Vesey)

Peter Hayden (Graham Hewson)

Mark Hadlow (Bruce Roddick)

Robert Shannon (Mickey Eyre)

Kate Harcourt (Mrs Eyre)

Heather Lindsay (Heather Demler)

Michael Booth (Detective Mike Charles)

John Givens (Detective Len Johnston)

John Batstone (Inspector Pat Gaines)

Patrick Smythe (Justice Henry)

Bill Johnson (Dr Sprott)



In New Zealand the way we have it, not to hold an opinion about the guilt or innocence of Arthur Allan Thomas may be a rare attribute. Obviously that was what the Government found when it looked for members of a tribunal to enquire into the case. Only those who believe in the infallibility of the legal process and (presumably) those who have not read David Yallop's book Beyond Reasonable Doubt? will still hold rigidly to the view that justice was done and was seen to be done. Human error makes me doubt the infallibility of any man-made system. On the other hand, I could claim to be impartial because I haven't read David Yallop's book. If it argues for Thomas as persuasively as does the film version then it's hardly surprising the Government had to appoint an Archbishop, an Australian and a South Islander to the commission of enquiry.


The film of Beyond Reasonable Doubt (loss of the query is a blessing) is so good that I hesitate to quibble. But quibble I must, over a point that worried me. The screenplay - perhaps because Yallop, who wrote it himself, knows all the circumstances - seems to assume that its audiences will have a complete knowledge of the background. I took that to be the explanation for certain gaps and omissions. If one chose to be paranoid, such blatant selectivity could be called part of a deliberate policy every bit as rigged as the police case against Thomas is accused of being. However, commonsense suggests that scripting and editing have both been forced to concentrate on the salient point of a cause celebre that has dragged on now for a decade.


As entertainment the film succeeds admirably. It introduces a bizarre and mysterious situation with economy and with style. It then proceeds to follow its progress from the point of view of the investigating team. In doing so it avoids the clinical approach of a true documentary; but it also refuses to be influenced by the technique used for In Cold Blood, a close relative in theme if not in actual treatment. Instead, Yallop and his director (John Laing) have preferred to use an oblique, rather subdued approach. The style is set by the opening sequence, and it's apparent all through the painstaking search for motives, weapons, bodies, clues and suspects. Colour is unobtrusive. Only occasionally is it used to dramatic effect. Mostly it's just there, conveying to us the reality of a small rural backwater where something extraordinary has happened. It's a visual application of the understatement - the matter-of-factness we like to think of as a national characteristic. Police routine is shown: the questioning of witnesses, conferences held, trivial details reported, theories discussed, reports made.


Slowly there's a shift of emphasis. We begin to see Inspector Hutton in a new light. David Hemmings plays him with a low-key, almost sinister ruthlessness - and we begin to appreciate that this is not so much a 'whodunnit' as a 'hedunnit because I say so'. Len Demler, who is made by Martyn Sanderson into an ambiguous figure - unemotional, unsympathetic but wary - is interrogated and dismissed. Almost in passing the name 'Thomas' is mentioned. Suddenly an array of damning evidence is produced and Thomas is arrested. The court cases follow. As always, trial scenes prove to be grippingly exciting. The cross-examinations {even when the drift of the questions is not altogether clear - editing again?) bring out the best and worst in human nature.


Beyond Reasonable Doubt is based wholly on the premise that Thomas was a victim, and that the police made sure he went to prison. It's almost a classic Victorian melodrama - pure as the driven snow - brought to desperate straits by someone portrayed as a relentless and not too scrupulous officer of the law. Even if you don't accept that, the film is remarkably effective in presenting it as a likely explanation. If it lacks objectivity, David Yallop would almost certainly reply that it was never intended to allow the police to have a say in the matter. They had already made the most of all their chances.


Given the script's determination to show him in the most favourable light, Thomas naturally appears as a simple man, overwhelmed by a frightening ordeal. John Hargreaves takes him a lot further than that. This is your ordinary everyday decent joker pitch-forked into notoriety and suffering a complete transformation. His original goodnatured belief that it's all a mistake turns into a raging fury against - well, against what? Persecution? If you are convinced by the film, that would have to be the most logical word to use.


The cast is long and, in terms of what we are now starting to accept in our films, distinguished. Grant Tilly is in his best form as Morris, the prosecutor. Ian Watkin is both understanding and aggressive as Ryan, the defence counsel. Bruce Allpress and Tony Barry have strong roles as members of the police force. Diana Rowan gives strength and anguished despair to the difficult role of Vivien Thomas. There is scarcely a small part that isn't played for all it's worth; and the people of Pukekawa add their own sense of reality to the early part of the film.


New Zealand films have one consistently notable feature: their camerawork. The photography in Beyond Reasonable Doubt may be discreet; but it's also powerful; understatement again, you see, which adds enormously to such atmospheric moments as the discovery of the Crewe bodies in the river or the sudden eerie shot of a masked figure peering along a gun-barrel. Never is the camera allowed to intrude, to elaborate unnecessarily. That is the great strength of Betond Reasonable Doubt. However grotesque and outrageous the story it has to tell, you are always aware that it is true. We are often told we are not a very subtle people. This is not a very subtle approach to an emotional and controversial subject. Surprisingly perhaps, its greatest attribute is its subtlety.


- Peter Harcourt, Sequence, October 1980.



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