Arguably the most difficult facet of prosecuting a serial killer case concerns the issue of insanity, since anyone who commits unspeakable atrocities must, in some respect, be out of his or her mind—and thus potentially innocent of premeditation, or able to know right from wrong. That question was essential in the trial of Dennis Nilsen, a Scottish-born resident of London who, in early 1983, was arrested after human remains were discovered in the drains of the house at 23 Cranley Gardens where he was renting a flat. A subsequent investigation uncovered more human body parts, and once a positive ID of a victim was made, he confessed to killing a grand total of 15 individuals whose names he couldn’t totally remember, but who were all young men, many of them drug addicts and/or living on the streets.
A three-part miniseries that debuts Oct. 15 on Sundance Now (following its U.K. premiere last month), Des recounts this particularly grisly chapter in British history, focusing on the enigma that was Nilsen, here played by David Tennant with an intellectual chilliness and blankness that practically screams “banality of evil.” With his bangs combed over his forehead, his face decorated by round glasses, and his thin frame covered by sports jackets and button-down shirts, Tennant eerily resembles the real-life Nilsen. It’s his demeanor, however, that truly leaves a lasting impression. At once talkative and cagey, introspective and remote, helpful and antagonistic, he’s an inscrutably monstrous figure—one who’s upfront about the fact that he did the foul deeds of which he’s accused, but who says that he’s not sure why. Because, as he claims, he’s not confident he fully knows himself.
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