Arts, Television, Review

‘The Murders at White House Farm’ Opts for Subtlety


If you love true crime, then it’s time to add another show to your watch list. Based on a true story, The Murders at White House Farm details the mystery of how five family members were killed in their countryside home one night, leaving behind only one member of the family, Jeremy Bamber (Freddie Fox). After being out the whole night, Jeremy reports having received a strange call from his father, which first tipped him off to something unusual. Once the police actually arrive at the house, they’re too late. Everyone in the house has been shot dead.

The initial suspect is Sheila Caffell (Cressida Bonas), the daughter of the Bamber family with a history of mental illness. While the police begin wrapping up the case as a murder-suicide, Jeremy’s cousin, Ann Eaton (Gemma Whelan) starts to suspect Jeremy himself, who appears much too cavalier for a man whose entire family is gone.

With beautiful visuals, effective music, and superb acting, this drama shines even in an era glutted with true crime media. The visual transitions—from cluttered, fluorescent apartment bathrooms to idyllic, sunny wheat fields—match the many shifts in the actors’ moods. The show also employs skillful camera techniques to subtly reveal each character’s inner state. Characters in conflict, for example, are often framed to appear as if they are going down similar yet opposite paths. Close shots transition to long ones as the show emphasizes distance or separation. Small touches such as these reveal the skill and precision with which the show was created.

In contrast to other murder mysteries, The Murders at White House Farm only employs music when necessary. Director Paul Whittington does not fabricate a sense of urgency through swelling, chaotic string music, as other shows in this genre so often do. Whittington simply lets the suspense of the moments themselves shine on screen. Oftentimes, the most intense scenes do not contain cold-blooded murder, but rather they focus on the unraveling of the truth, which serves as a much more effective center stage.

Through it all, we are grounded by the calm, composed Detective Sergeant Stan Jones (Mark Addy). Addy’s performance subverts the typical justice-seeking detective archetype. Most often, such protagonists are angry, almost unhinged, and eager to rage against the machine of systemic corruption. But Stan Jones is always controlled and collected. He never lets himself blow up at his witnesses, and he doesn’t act out against his selfish, lazy superior, Detective Chief Inspector Taff Jones (Stephen Graham), even while trying to circumvent rules that obstruct justice. Interestingly enough, Taff himself takes on the role of the furious, loose detective—it is his ungrounded self-confidence and loud masculinity that prevent the truth from coming to light.

Though Stan doesn’t always get things right, his tireless efforts to fight for justice are perhaps the most admirable aspect of the show. We see him cool and levelheaded while he works at his desk, but also vulnerable at home as he confides in his wife, showing how genuinely upset he is when he cannot seem to help the Bamber family. Sometimes, Stan simply does what he can, and then he steps back and sees how things unfold before planning his next step. These calculations are not cold, strategic maneuvering but rather quietly passionate efforts to solve the case.

Fox also keeps viewers guessing as he masterfully develops new sides of Bamber. Fox’s impressive acting range paints a picture of an extremely complex man with many motivations. Rather than avoid developing its characters for the sake of preserving a sense of mystery, The Murders at White House Farm explores their inner lives. Because each and every character is so complicated, even when they are on the same side, they don’t always get along. People with such varied motivations cannot completely reconcile with one another, and the show does not force them to do so.

The root of the show’s brilliance lies in how the truth is revealed rather than what the truth is, shifting the focus to attaining justice rather than relishing in gore. So many modern murder mysteries focus entirely on the guns, the gushing blood, and the terrible how-could-someone-do-this of it all. But because this show refuses to follow suit, it pulls off an effective and refreshing murder mystery that doesn’t rely on cheap shock value.

Featured image courtesy of HBO

September 27, 2020