Chris Craig (Paul Reynolds), 16, and Derek Bentley (Chris Eccleston), 19, are caught robbing a London warehouse. Bentley is held by the police, but Craig won’t give up his gun. “Let him have it,” says Bentley. Craig opens fire, wounding one officer and killing another. Was Bentley telling Craig to use his weapon or to hand it over? A jury believed the former. Both boys were convicted of murder in 1952. Craig was legally too young to hang; Bentley was not.
Director Peter Medak (The Krays) makes a vigorous case that Bentley, an epileptic with the mental capacity of an eleven-year-old, should never have stood trial. The script, by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, shows Bentley as a victim of his era: Juvenile crime was rife in postwar Britain, and the system took a hard line. Bentley’s family launched a public outcry; today, the case for Bentley’s posthumous pardon is being reevaluated. The movie lacks the psychological density of The Krays; it sometimes plays like a treatise against capital punishment. But Medak’s white-heat passion and stirring performances from Reynolds, Eccleston and Tom Courtenay, as Bentley’s father, add up to explosive drama.