True crime reviews
What to listen to, read and see
Des: A Haunting Triumvirate takes the viewer on a journey into darkness.
Des (ITV, 2020)
I have had the pleasure of viewing a pre-release copy of ITV/Stan.’s miniseries Des that follows the case of Dennis Nilsen and the men and boys he killed. The story plays out over three episodes and it could not have been done in a more perfect way.
The three main characters Dennis “Des” Nilsen, played expertly by David Tennant, DCI Peter Mays played by Tennant’s fellow Good Omens cast member Daniel Jay and Jason Watkins as true crime author Brian Masters weave together a story of serial murder from three very different view points that create a majestic triptych on the personification of evil. The simplistic title, gives the viewer a hint of what the story will cover. The miniseries is a simple yet raw insight into a killer, the police investigating him, and the true crime author that is fascinated by what makes the killer tick. Gone are the dramatic clichés of many films in the genre, instead it strips it back to the story that stands alone without any help from the usual thriller film tropes.
The miniseries covers the case from the shocking discovery prior to Nilsen’s arrest to his eventual incarceration, the film never trips over itself nor doubles backs, Des treats its audience as intelligent with a love for either true crime or modern history.
The miniseries series is set out neatly into three different sections. The first episode covers the discovery and arrest, we get to meet Nilsen as a he truly is, a narcissist who desires the fame and notoriety his crimes will afford him. The second episode covers the evidence and the attempts made to identify all of his victims from the remains the police could find and the crumbs of information Nilsen feeds both DCI Mays and author Masters. The third delves into the court case as well as the question of Nilsen’s sanity.
The pacing of the miniseries is perfect, there is never a lull in the story, it continues to forge along without taking a breath, towards the well-known conclusion. Yet those who know the story inside and out* it still offers a fascinating and terrifying character study, as David Tennant brings Nilsen back to life, forty years after his crimes, and 2 years after his death.
If there was a criticism to make, and by far this is the only flaw I found in the entire movie. The era of the film (late 70s-early 80’s) is only represented by the peppered real news reports from the era. The characters in the series are dressed in very non-descript clothing that belies the era. To those who may say, flared pants and long collars would detract from the rawness of the story, I would whole-heartedly agree and this is why it is not one I would change.
By far Tennant deserves all the accolades he has received for his characterisation of Nilsen. I am very late to the party in discovering Tennant and his talent. Not being a Dr Who fan, I only discovered him in the recent series Good Omens and I became an instant fan and now Tennant cast as Nilsen has cemented that admiration. Then to see the early photos of him as Des, juxtaposed alongside the actual photos of Nilsen gave me chills and those chills remained throughout the entire mini-series. The casting has played an important role and though it may be easy for any actor to play the Des character in full colour, eating up the scenery, Tennant allows Nilsen to be the arrogant and conniving killer he was without any flourishes. Tennant also equally shared his scenes with both Watkins (author Masters) and Mays (DCI Jay) in an understated and chilling way that gives the film its darker undertones.
The true crime genre, to many, has become saturated with limitless films, books, podcasts and documentaries (and I work in several of those fields), but in amongst the noise, stands Des, a mini-series that will stand the test of time and for many can be seen as a companion piece to ITV’s 2011 release Appropriate Adult (covering the Fred and Rose West case in England) that is a personal favourite in the genre so it was interesting to discover that Des is ITV’s ninth film in their true crime catalogue and I now seek to find the other seven.
Des will be released on ITV in the UK on September 14, 2020 and in Australia on the streaming service Stan. on September 15, 2020.