You might believe that you’ve become immune to harrowing experiences at this point in your life. The cumulative effect of age, life experiences, and daily headlines highlighting the relentless cruelty of the world may have thickened the protective callus around your soul. Particularly when delivered through the unassuming, everyday medium of television.
However, along comes a production like “The Sixth Commandment” that, over the course of its four meticulously crafted episodes, systematically peels away that callus, scene by scene. It serves as a stark reminder of what television, human beings, and the human heart are still capable of achieving.
Crafted by the talented Sarah Phelps and skillfully directed by Saul Dibb, the series unveils the chilling true story of Peter Farquhar (played by Timothy Spall), a retired schoolteacher from Stowe, and his neighbor Ann Moore-Martin (portrayed by Anne Reid). Both individuals, one after the other, become entangled with a young churchwarden named Ben Field (played by Éanna Hardwicke). Field insinuates himself into their lives, becoming indispensable, and, after they modify their wills to make him the main beneficiary, he proceeds to murder Peter and attempts to murder Ann. Before these heinous acts, he subjects them, especially Peter, to repeated poisonings and various forms of psychological torment, all for the sheer thrill of it.
Sarah Phelps is renowned for her work on “A Very British Scandal” and her expert adaptations of Agatha Christie novels. However, with “The Sixth Commandment,” she applies her considerable talent to create something more nuanced and even more brutally impactful in its own subtle yet profound way. The layers of horror in Peter’s story, which takes center stage in the first hour, accumulate relentlessly to the point where watching becomes almost unbearable. It’s a study in the power of faith, loneliness, and the enduring vulnerability of humanity, particularly that of the virtuous, innocent, and unworldly when faced with someone devoid of moral constraints.
Peter is a homosexual man who, due to his faith and personality, has rarely acted on his desires. “Even my deviance is pathetic,” he confides in his priest and counselor. We helplessly witness as Ben, a born predator, effortlessly assesses this good and suffering man, exploiting his yearning for any form of companionship (he’ll settle for so little) and his self-loathing, before making his sinister move. Starting with gentle affection, poetry, a professed love of Christ, Peter is filled with joy at finding his soulmate. Initially, the poison in their relationship is metaphorical, as Ben positions himself at the center of Peter’s world, isolating him from the rest of his life, while spreading insinuations about Peter’s nonexistent drinking problem. All the while, Ben casts himself as the young savior. Subsequently, the poison turns literal.
Timothy Spall delivers a performance that matches or perhaps even surpasses any previous work, a statement not made lightly. Given the exquisite writing and direction, Spall provides a magnificent, captivating portrayal of what could easily be the most unremarkable of subjects: a good man. Peter, a beloved teacher who continues to give guest lectures at a university even after retiring (how he meets Ben), is intelligent, humorous, and kind, yet tormented by what he views as his profound weakness. His faith serves as his anchor, but church teachings prevent him from reconciling it with his homosexuality. “The Sixth Commandment” deserves praise for never deriding faith. In the forthcoming episodes, especially with Anne Reid as Ann, it acknowledges its significance in people’s lives and the solace it can provide, even as Ben distorts everything it should represent.
Éanna Hardwicke, portraying Ben, strikes a remarkable balance. Evil characters can often be one-dimensional and uninteresting, but Hardwicke infuses Ben with a disconcerting blend of calculation, charm, and a subdued, almost concealed delight in the harm he inflicts. It becomes impossible to avert one’s gaze.
You’ll want to look away because it is truly harrowing. The intrusion of malevolence into the lives of these good and godly individuals is devastating. Before Ben resorts to murder, he inflicts immense suffering. Beyond the central trio of characters, the entire supporting cast is brilliant, with performances by Annabel Scholey as Ann’s devoted niece, Conor MacNeill as Ben’s guilt-ridden accomplice and victim Martyn, and Anna Crilly, Jonathan Aris, and James Harkness as the police investigators who ultimately ensnare Ben. Collectively, it is as remarkable a piece of television as one could ever hope to encounter. Clearly steeped in meticulous research and crafted with love and reverence, it also serves as a fitting tribute to the enduring goodness of Peter Farquhar and Ann Moore-Martin, who remain untarnished by the darkness that enveloped them.