No antimony on my toast, please!
Tracy Hodson | Middle of Nowhere, OR United States | 04/04/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"There's something mesmerizing about the personality of the poisoner, especially when he's a scientist/doctor. The clinical detachment all scientists need becomes sociopathic when the experimental question becomes: "What will happen when I put THIS much poison in my wife's jam, and how will the same dose affect my infant daughter? Will she lick my fingers, or will the taste make her spit it out?"
Dr. William Palmer, a young and skilled doctor who was at first an asset to the small town of Rugely, proved to be worse than incompetent. Extraordinarily arrogant and daring, he murdered nearly everyone who inconvenienced him, as well as others who he saw simply as handy subjects for experimentation with various toxins, mostly antimony, a heavy metal which was then used medicinally, in small-dosed mixtures . His murders were sometimes a solution to his ever-increasing gambling debts, but it seems that mostly he was, like all poisoners, merely fascinated and addicted to the power of life and death he held over all who came within reach. Poisoners, especially serial ones, seem to have a severe "god-complex" often toying with a victim's life for weeks or months, watching and documenting the effects of their work, and sometimes even deciding to let the victim live to further reinforce their own sense of omnipotence.
William Palmer was charming, a competent doctor, had won for himself a wife of character, was a successfull seducer of young women, and had dear friends, all of whom he eventually killed off, yet was not caught for many, many years. In the 19th century illness resulted in death as often as not, so it was the ideal time for a poisoner to do his work. Many famous poisoning cases date from this period, as little was understood about the mechanincs of death, babies died frequently of childhood diseases (hence the need to have as many kids as possible to increase the odds of one or two surviving to adulthood), and treatment of adults consisted of dosing them with odd mixtures of handmade compounds, leeching, cupping, bleeding, and other esoteric "remedies" that had low success results.
What made Palmer's case so astonishing was that he'd been carrying out his diabolical experiments pretty much in plain sight, relying on his reputation to keep him safe. In this film, we see him watching with cool interest the effects of his actions, and Keith Allen gives him a handsome charisma that turns to chilly detachment once the experiment is underway. Jayne Ashbourne is excellent as his loving and increasingly anguished wife, mourning her lost babies and blaming herself (though she starts to connect a few dots, but not in time).
The claustrophobia of small-town Victorian life is well-captured in this well-made BBC/Masterpiece Theatre production. We even see that with everyone butting into everyone else's business (as is usual in small towns), suspicion was growing, but no one had dared to speak--no one could really be sure, so they kept silent. Richard Coyle (the looney Geoffrey from "Coupling") is very good as Palmer's closest friend, Cook, whose demise brought about Palmer's ruin. After all his crimes, only this one could be pinned on him, as he'd panicked, used Strychnine (a much more dramatically symptomed toxin than the low-key antimony), and had had clear and obvious motives for the killing.
All of the performances are good, the story is well-told with Allen completely believable as Dr. Palmer (you may recognize him from his small, but equally charismatic and criminal roles in "Shallow Grave" and "Trainspotting"); Keith Allen certainly makes an impression, and that quality is used to good advantage in "The Life and Crimes of William Palmer." He was certainly an enigmatic man; in this film we mostly get to know him through watching him as the "pure scientist" who doesn't see his victims as people, merely as subjects whose responses to the various poisons are a matter of curiousity. Allen's performance is so successful that goose bumps, watching him in action, are guaranteed."
TOP NOTCH ENTERTAINMENT...
J. MACKENZIE | Taconic, CT USA | 02/25/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Keith Allen is a decidedly gifted actor, and perfectly cast in the unnerving lead, here. Well-supported by an equally strong cast. Solid directing. Beautiful, haunting score. The only complaint is that the story ended. But after murdering all those nice loved ones, I guess it was only a matter of time. This is rich, merciless stuff, indeed."