Stranger Than Fiction

A riveting true-crime story, 2020’s acclaimed UK mini-series, DES, starring the extraordinary David Tennant, comes to Blu-Ray, thanks to the crackerjack team at Acorn Media/RJL Entertainment, in concert with Sundance Now/all3media/New Pictures.

The three-part narrative revolves around the mild-mannered Dennis Nilsen, who, in 1983 calmly admitted to the serial killing of fifteen men, after the undeniable “death stench” from his North London digs alerted the attention of a local constable.

Nilsen, nicknamed “Des” never denied the horrendous acts; his placidity only intensified the ensuing investigation with an aura of creepiness.  He was as fascinated with himself, as were the detectives, psychologists, and the public.  “Why did you do it?,” he was repeatedly asked.  “I don’t really know,” he answered disappointingly, “I was hoping you could tell me.”

The series, which covers the discovery, the incarceration, the on-going sleuthing, the trial, and its aftermath is first-rate television drama at its best.  In the land of Jack the Ripper, it’s quite a back-handed compliment to be officially acknowledged as the most prolific serial killer in the country’s history.

There are engrossing intertwining stories in DES that figure prominently in the scenario, specifically that of DCI Peter Jay, who tries to understand what compelled such an intelligent, quiet member of the community to commit such horrors.  That Nilsen’s lonely personal life in freakish ways mirrors Jay’s is but one of the minefields explored in this thriller (the bizarre parallels continued long after the case ended; both men died in 2018).  The third human connection is that of Brian Masters, a noted author, who gains Nilsen’s confidence, becoming the killer’s Boswell and, in a series of interviews, puts together the makings of what would make a best-selling book of the case,  A Killing for Company (off and on with Des’s approval).  The fact that the three work together to hopefully and ultimately solve the mystery of Des is what makes this show so great.

Not all of Des’s marks became victims.  Some were let free after spending the night talking about their lives with the genial monster; indeed, he became known as “the kindly killer,” who, nevertheless, on another occasion, would boil a guest’s head in a stew pot.

Additionally hampering the case are the political ramifications enforced by Jay’s superiors and civilian ties.  Suppression of evidence becomes a roadblock the frustrated DCI must rise above when it is revealed that Nilsen was himself a former cop during the previous decade (he left the force because of homophobic bullying), and, the fact that one of Des’s (still missing) vics may be the son of a connected influential family.  This further makes both Jay and Masters wonder if fifteen is really the total number of Des’s “work” – a reasonable question, as there were over 8000 missing persons reported during the five years Nilsen preyed upon the local gay male community.

Naturally, DES is a tour de force for the three leads, especially star David Tennant.  Prior to this, I had just finished watching the hilarious Good Omens, where the actor played the riotous, snarky Crowley.  Most viewers know Tennant as the male lead in Broadchurch, but this chameleon actor has also rocked such diverse a resume as Jessica Jones, Dr. Who, Fright Night, Mary Queen of Scots, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and the voice characterizations in such animated fare as DuckTails, Postman Pat, Thunderbirds are Go, and How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.  As his chain-smoking Des, the Shakespearean-trained Tennant adapts an almost Tony Perkins/Norman Bates vibe, not only in demeanor and affability, but, amazingly, in his physical appearance.  No wonder he achieved a slew of new accolades for his performance.

Not far behind are the Beta roles of DCI Jay and Brian Masters, beautifully realized by Daniel Mays and Jason Watkins. Other stellar turns are delivered by Ron Cook, Barry Ward, Faye McKeever, Doc Brown, Bronagh Waugh, Jay Simpson, Alex Bhat, Joel Morris, Chanel Cresswell, Jonathan Coy, Oscar Garland, and Cal MacAninch.

Balancing the on-camera histrionics are the behind-the-lens efforts, notably the top-notch direction (Lewis Arnold, who also created the project for television), scripting (Luke Neal, Kelly Jones), intentionally dingy widescreen camerawork (Mark Wolf), and scoring (Sarah Warne).

The single-disc Blu-Ray of DES is splendid, looking and sounding aces; a special ten minute supplement accompanies the bravura episodes.

LSS, I heartily recommend DES without reservation.  It’s quite likely you’ll want to watch the entire 145 minutes in one sitting, probably with your jaw dropped to knee level.

DES. Color.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Acorn Media/RJL Entertainment/Sundance Now/all3media/New Pictures. CAT# SUN13440BD. SRP: $29.95.

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