I finally get round to watching the achingly poignant Four Lives, a searching dramatisation of institutional failings
“There’s a reason that gay people need the respect and the protection of the police”
Four lives. Anthony Walgate, Gabriel Kovari, Daniel Whitworth and Jack Taylor. Those are the stories at the heart of Four Lives, Neil McKay’s sensitive dramatisation of the serial murders committed by Stephen Port in 2014-15. And it is hard not to draw immediate comparisons to the clickbaity, controversy-courting Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story from Ryan Murphy on Netflix, whose strategy has certainly worked in getting views and headlines but utterly failed in paying any sort of respect to the victims and their families.
As it turns out, the story of the four murders by Port here are only part of the tale, as Four Lives is less a salacious serial killer romp than an examination of how the investigating police force completely ballsed the case up. Whether through incompetence, institutional homophobia, general disinterest or a combination of three, we get to draw our own conclusions as the pain of the families is exacerbated by the realisation that they need to battle harder than they could have imagined in order to find any kind of justice for their loved ones.
Sheridan Smith delivers another of her soul-baringly astonishing performances as Sarah Sak, the mother of Port’s first victim Anthony, and so we end up spending the most time with her, as reeling from the death of her son in London, her family life in Hull threatens to crumble in the face of the Metropolitan Police’s abject failure – the lovely Michael Jibson is cleverly cast as the family liaison officer who does the absolute minimum of liaising. Leanne Best is also outstanding as Sarah’s hugely supportive sister Kate.
As we carry on in the world of hook-ups apps and GHB, we see how Port was able to exploit the secrecy that often accompanies LGBTQ+ people exploring their sexuality to manipulate his evil way and how the consequent discoveries impact those left behind so severely. The grieving lover refused permission to read a suicide note because he’s not next of kin, the fathers scarcely believing their sons might be exploring bisexuality, the sisters who won’t take no for an answer (Jaime Winstone and Stephanie Hyam excellent here).
Almost as heartbrekaing is the sense that Port could have been caught so much earlier. The suspicions of neighbours (Samuel Barnett in a deeply committed performance) and friends (Rufus Jones achingly good as Gabriel’s pal John) dismissed too easily, the sense that the Met – as overworked as they can be – were simply looking for the easiest answer. Over three hours, Four Lives gently but determinedly tells the right stories, reducing Stephen Merchant’s eerie Port to almost a bystander, as tribute is paid in the right place. Excellent work.