'LET Him Have It" is not the most dignified title of the season. But the movie behind it, based on real events that occurred in England some 40 years ago, ranks with the very best pictures in recent memory - a gripping, superbly acted melodrama that makes a powerful statement on the timely and important issue of capital punishment.
The words "Let him have it!" were shouted by a 19-year-old burglar to his accomplice on a South London rooftop in the early 1950s.
Later that phrase became the crux of a criminal trial in which its meaning was fiercely debated. Was the boy inciting his companion to kill the unarmed police officer who confronted them during their botched crime - or advising him to give himself up by surrendering his pistol?
What made the crime and the trial unusual was the fact that one of the perpetrators, Derek Bentley, had suffered a childhood brain injury during a wartime air raid and had never progressed to a mental age beyond the preteen level.
When he went on trial for his life after the attempted break-in, during which an officer was killed, it was expected that his age and mental condition would be seen as mitigating factors. But the criminal-justice system turned on him with all the force at its disposal, sparking fierce public argument and leading to profound changes in British attitudes toward the death penalty.
"Let Him Have It" begins with a disturbing vision of London under a bombing attack in the 1940s. This anchors the story not only in Derek's tragic injury, but also in the destructiveness of the World War II era and the instability of the immediate postwar years, during which crimes by youths became a growing problem in Britain and elsewhere.
The film shows Derek growing up under different and even contradictory influences: the care of a loving and concerned family, the temptations of rebelliousness, and the shallow friendship of ill-chosen friends. One of those friends, a fellow both younger and nastier than Derek, entices him with the false glamour of swaggering street life and petty crime.
The film's account of these events is honest and complex enough to acknowledge that Derek bears a measure of responsibility for his actions and is capable of instigating as well as following. His parents look on sadly as his life strays ever farther from the path they tried so hard to mark out for him. Their helplessness becomes most poignant after the fatal night on the rooftop, when Derek's destiny falls into the hands of a judicial system with blunt priorities of its own.
During its first hour or so, "Let Him Have It" is stylized to a degree, gliding past the gritty details of everyday life to convey the atmosphere of Derek's adolescence as he perceives it through eyes that are often bedazzled or beclouded by the influences around him.
The film's most powerful moments come near the end, as Derek and his family cope desperately with forces much larger and more powerful than they are. The last 30 minutes of the story are overwhelmingly strong, blending human drama and social history into a series of extremely moving scenes, leading to a brief coda that's as unexpected and audacious as anything seen on a movie screen in years.
"Let Him Have It" was directed by Peter Medak, whose longtime filmmaking career took on surprising new force in his last movie, "The Krays," which also examined postwar British life in vivid and critical terms. "Let Him Have It" is less bruisingly energetic than that picture, and it has some significant flaws - doing a poor job, for instance, of chronicling the Bentley case's tumultuous effect on British public opinion in real life.
Yet it emerges as a stunningly realized work despite such problems, and Mr. Medak deserves great credit for this, along with Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, who wrote the screenplay. So do the performers, including Chris Eccleston as the protagonist, Chris Craig as his companion in crime, Eileen Atkins as his mother, and the gifted Tom Courtenay as his father, in a portrayal that begins too quietly but acquires astonishing force as the story unfolds.
Oliver Stapleton did the eloquent cinematography, and Ray Lovejoy edited the picture. Three cheers for all. Rated R for language and violence.