'The Widower': TV Review

STEFFAN HILL/PBS
A compelling drama about a real-life killer and sociopath.
10/4/2015

This absorbing three-part series examines the strange case of Scottish murderer Malcolm Webster.

When Scotsman Malcolm John Webster was sentenced to life imprisonment in May of 2011, it capped off an outlandish saga that began in 1994 when this charming sociopath got away with the murder of his first wife, Claire Morris. There were some tell-tale signs in Webster’s youth that he had lethal tendencies, such as a love of setting fires that earned him the nickname "pyro." But by adulthood, Webster was more often known as a sweet-talking social type who gave back to his community by working as a hospital attendant.

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Was this magnetism a mere mask behind which lay a dyed-in-the-wool psychopath? The opening installment of the three-hour miniseries The Widower (originally produced in 2014 by the U.K.-based ITV, and now airing over three consecutive Sundays on PBS) certainly suggests as much. Indeed, it initially goes out of its way to emphasize the creep factor of Webster who, as portrayed by Reece Shearsmith, is far removed from the roguish charmer he was purported to be in reality. One look at his receding hairline and shark-like dead eyes and it’s clear this guy is bad news, though the three women he romances over the course of the series take their sweet time catching on to that fact.

It’s common in true-crime stories like this to overplay the lurid details, and that’s occasionally the case here. The scenes between Webster and his first wife Claire (Sheridan Smith) have a bit of a black comic undercurrent (he knocks her out by poisoning her tea with the psychoactive drug Temazepam, then spills his deepest secrets as if to a confessor) that tends to get suffocated by the dour, self-serious atmosphere conjured by director Paul Whittington. That’s likely a result of trying to offer a respectful take on a terrible tragedy. But the constant glumness of the first installment tends to up the sensationalism factor, especially after Webster carries out Claire’s murder via a faux auto accident and our ghoulish antihero starts shedding some ultra-rehearsed crocodile tears. His evil seems transparent in the easy-moralizing way of the silliest trash TV.

But soon enough, the series and Shearsmith’s take on Webster start to build in power. The second installment mainly deals with Webster’s relationship with his New Zealand-born second wife Felicity Drumm (Kate Fleetwood). It replays many of the particulars of the Claire scenes (right down to Webster’s very similar wedding toast), yet benefits from a sunnier atmosphere that nicely counteracts the horror of the situation. There’s a terrific scene in which Drumm gets hip to her husband’s plans and confronts him publicly. Denials follow until he finally says, with a chillingly arrogant lilt, You would have died happy."

However, it’s the third episode — in which Webster romances prospective victim Simone Banerjee (Archie Panjabi) — where the series really sinks in its claws. The villainy that seemed so one-note in the first part of the mini suddenly becomes intriguingly shaded and complicated: Shearsmith and Panjabi play their scenes together with a genuine tenderness that lingers even as the small task force led by the tenacious Detective Sergeant Charlie Henry (John Hannah) races against time to warn Banerjee of her likely association with a killer. And though Webster still engages in plenty of beyond-the-pale activities (faking a cancer diagnosis to elicit sympathy is just the tip of that particular iceberg), you may still find yourself questioning at times whether this career murderer has sincerely found redemptive love.

Twitter: @keithuhlich

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