The 50 Best TV Shows of 2023: #9 – The Sixth Commandment | Television

OhEvery once in a while, a tragedy penetrates you so deeply that it stays with you. No, In You. Frame after frame of input. The Sixth Commandment, written by Sarah Phelps and directed by Saul Dibb, was the most heartbreaking example of the year. Maybe the decade. In four harrowing and almost unbearable episodes, it took an often lascivious, insensitive and morally dubious genre, and gracefully turned it on its head. The Sixth Commandment was a real victim-driven crime, even though just using that word seems like a thoughtless reduction. It gave a dignity rarely afforded, either on screen or in life, to people whose lives are destroyed by crime.

These people were mainly Peter Farquhar (Timothy Spall), a retired schoolteacher from Stowe, and his neighbor Ann Moore-Martin (Anne Reid), a retired headmistress. In turn, in 2014 and 2017, they befriend a young churchwarden, Ben Field (Éanna Hardwicke), who interferes in their lives. He read Bible verses with them. Helped in the garden. Cooked for them. He moved in. Then he told them he was in love with them. After changing their will in his favor, Ben began to gaslight them, humiliate them, mentally torture them, and poison them. He murdered Peter and attempted to murder Ann. After a police investigation and a Thames Valley criminal trial in 2019, Field was sentenced to life imprisonment.

It was a drama made up of two distinct halves – intimate character study/police procedural – that blended together perfectly. The first two episodes focused on Peter, then Ann. Spall, in the best performance of his career, played Peter with exquisite tenderness. You could see his three decades of work with Mike Leigh in his stooping gait, the way he pruned a rose or washed a cup in the kitchen sink. He imbued Peter with moral and physical rigor, nostalgia, self-loathing and terrible shame. He was a man who had spent his life struggling to integrate his homosexuality into his Anglican faith. An attempt which, performed by Spall and written by Phelps – a writer at the top of her game – has been described not as futile, but as essential to her individuality. “It’s never pornography; that’s not what I want,” he confessed to a friend about his reluctant habit of looking at photos of men walking in shorts. “Even my deviance is pathetic.” On the night of their secret engagement, he confessed to Ben that he didn’t want sex. All he wanted was to “hold and be held.” How utterly heartbreaking.

Ann, just as magnificently played by Reid, was equally loving, religious – Catholic in her case – and, as her devoted niece Ann-Marie puts it, “just plain good”. But their kindness has never been blessed. Rather, it was part of the reason they were vulnerable to Ben’s lies. Not because they were gullible, frail or alone – although they were alone, like so many older people in this country – but because they were believers. In God, humanity and perhaps above all love. This is what made the Sixth Commandment so heartbreaking to watch. This is why we must honor them.

Set in the sleepy parish of Maids Moreton, Buckinghamshire, The Sixth Commandment was masterfully produced by Dibb, a man who understands English clearly as the great novelists do and can evoke its spirit with the yellowness of the late summer light or the boiling of a kettle. I can’t wait to see what he and Phelps do next. While rewatching The Sixth Commandment (and it was even more painful the second time), I was struck by the number of lingering close-ups of hands. Ann caressing Ben’s arms while he read John Donne to her in bed. Peter’s hand gripping a wall with hallucinogenic terror. Peter’s sister-in-law takes Ann’s traumatized niece by the hands in the final scene and tells her “you stopped him.”

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The Sixth Commandment concerned them too: families broken apart by incomprehensible cruelty, the detective coming out of retirement for one last case, the junior officer who slept on the office floor so he could look through Peter’s diary all night, the lawyers joking on the first day of the trial. It was also about the way we live, how we view and care for the elderly in our lives, and the courage it takes to love. What doesn’t matter, ultimately, are the authors. Ben’s motivations—beyond his god complex, sadism, and sociopathy—are never examined, nor is his backstory revealed. The same goes for his accomplice, a Cornish magician called Martyn. Some viewers may have found this lacking. But the Sixth Commandment – ​​which has been extensively researched and dramatized with the full consent of both families – turns away from Ben and Martyn as a sign of respect. I deeply respect him for that. It’s a master lesson in what true crime can do, and I’ll never forget it.

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