Medak's Gritty, Violent `Let Him Have It' Rises Above

XXX 1/2 "Let Him Have It," with Chris Eccleston, Paul Reynolds, Tom Courtenay, Eileen Atkins. Directed by Peter Medak, from a script by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade. Metro. "R" - Restricted, due to violence and strong language. --------------------------------------------------------------- At first glance, Peter Medak's "Let Him Have It" looks like a mirror-image of his last film, "The Krays."

Both are based on true stories. Both share a 1950s setting, gangster obsessions and drab rowhouse vistas.

But where "The Krays" was a stylish - and boldly stylized - study of psychopathy, "Let Him Have It" is a less showy, but no less gripping expose of miscarried justice. Avoiding the gleefully surreal cruelties of its predecessor, it reconstructs the background and impact of the Craig-Bentley murder trial which played a key role in ending capital punishment in Great Britain.

Chris Craig, 16, and Derek Bentley, 19, were defendants in the 1952 case, in which a warehouse robbery ended in a "Chicago-style gun battle" that killed a policeman. Craig, who pulled the trigger, was too young to get the death penalty. But Bentley, even though he was under police custody when the shot was fired, was found guilty of "mentally supporting" Craig and went to the gallows for his crime.

Bentley's epilepsy and limited intelligence - his mental age was estimated at 11 years old - were not mentioned in the course of the trial, and his words at an early stage of the gun-battle ("Let him have it, Chris!") were read as an incitement to violence rather than a plea for Chris to give the police his gun. Bentley's death sentence created a media-fanned public furor in its day, and in August of last year the case was reopened on the assumption that Bentley was more scapegoat than criminal.

In the closing credits, viewers are advised that film's early scenes are fictional, raising the question of where imagination gives way to documentary-style reconstruction. Whatever the facts of the case, Medak has created a riveting film that works as both a portrait of family and a vivid time-capsule of postwar Britain.

The stellar cast includes newcomers Chris Eccleston, as Derek, and Paul Reynolds, as Chris, along with old pros Tom Courtenay and Eileen Atkins, as Bentley's parents.

Medak's reading of juvenile delinquent behavior is a little too monkey-see-monkey-do at first. (Is seeing James Cagney in "White Heat" really bound to make you act like James Cagney in "White Heat"?) As the relationship between gullible Derek and spitfire Chris develops, however, the film gains in power and subtlety. By the time of the warehouse shootout there's no telling where the characters' fear and violent impulses will lead them.

"Let Him Have It" is less successful in revealing why the British judiciary of 1952 should have been so bloodthirsty, given that the case's jury and judge recommended a reprieve for Bentley. Oliver Stapleton's sepia-tinged cinematography impressionistically suggests a violence-weary Britain trying to emerge from its postwar shambles. But any cool analysis of the sociological factors at play is skipped over in favor of a more intimate family view of the proceedings.

The family reaction is certainly a wrenching one, with Atkins and Courtenay working in intricate balance with each other and Clare Holman, as Derek's sister, bringing a savvy, supple warmth to her role. Eccleston commands the screen with equal facility, even if he has too much intelligence in his eyes to be entirely convincing as Derek. There's no such credibility gap with addled dynamo Reynolds, whose satanic smirk may make him heir-apparent to Richard Widmark and Malcolm McDowell of "A Clockwork Orange."

The script, by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, finds enough quirks in its protagonists to lift them above the issues-movie premise. Michael Kamen's atmospheric chamber score is also crucial to the film's success.

Complementing rather than repeating "The Krays," this film is new proof that Medak is at the peak of his craft.