The first thing you notice about David Tennant in “Des” is the hair, a helmet-like thatch armoring his forehead. Then, just below it, the glasses, oversized aviators that nail the early-1980s period and, with the hair, give Tennant a remarkable resemblance to the man he’s playing, the necrophiliac Scottish serial killer Dennis Nilsen.
Those aren’t the only ways in which “Des,” a three-part British mini-series that begins Thursday on the streaming service Sundance Now, tries to fill in its picture of Nilsen. There are also the cigarettes, an omnipresent prop and indicator of something — Nilsen’s edginess, or emptiness, or his need to connect with the interrogators and jailhouse visitors he cadges smokes from.
Nilsen picked up, brought home and killed at least 12 men and boys from 1978 to 1983, keeping their corpses around a while for company before butchering them, sometimes boiling off their flesh and stowing their remains around his apartment or flushing them down the toilet. His victims were vulnerable, often homeless, and the London police had no idea he existed until a plumber found bones and flesh in the drain of his apartment building. (Tenants — including Nilsen — had complained about the plumbing.)
The natural inclination in dramatizing Nilsen’s story would be to show him in action, however luridly or soberly you chose to play it. The creators of “Des,” Lewis Arnold (who directed) and Luke Neal (who wrote two episodes), avoid that route entirely. They begin with the plumber, and they don’t flash back. The show takes place largely inside police stations, jails and courtrooms, with occasional side trips to collect evidence or conduct interviews.
The abiding question is “Why?,” not “How?,” and the search for an explanation for Nilsen’s actions is carried out by a pair of audience surrogates: Peter Jay (Daniel Mays of “Line of Duty”), the lead detective in the case, and the writer Brian Masters (Jason Watkins of “The Crown”), whose study of Nilsen, “Killing for Company,” is the screenplay’s source. They take turns, as interrogator and interviewer, sparring with the glib, smart, narcissistic Nilsen, trying to pull from him the names of his victims and a reason for their deaths.
It’s not a requirement, in that setup, that a drama definitively answer the question it poses. We accept, in the end, that there is no answer — Masters, in his book, cites the “essential unknowability” of the mind, and Tennant has called playing the role an effort to “illuminate the unilluminatable.”
But “Des” needs to give us something, and for all of its intelligence, superior craftsmanship and conscientious performances, it doesn’t really deliver. At the end of the show’s two and a quarter hours, Nilsen remains as opaque as he is when the police first knock on his door.
Which brings us back to Tennant, and the hair and glasses and cigs. His portrayal is technically flawless and, moment to moment, absorbing, but it feels completely exterior. This is partly, maybe largely, a function of the script, which in its determination not to be sensationalistic errs on the side of vagueness. (If the point is that Nilsen was just an empty shell, it’s not made in a way that I found very compelling or particularly chilling.)
But it also has to do with Tennant, who’s been wonderful playing showier villains in “Jennifer Jones” and in the British TV movie “Secret Smile” but doesn’t get under the skin of the more prosaic serial killer here. Tennant’s gift, from “Doctor Who” to Shakespeare, is for cerebral theatricality, not the nuanced banality of the Dennis Nilsen that “Des” presents. In keeping with the overall tenor of the production, Tennant keeps things under wraps. That may accurately reflect Nilsen, but for the sake of the drama you wish there had been a way for him to let it rip at least once.
Enjoying “Des” — well, appreciating “Des” — has to do with its details, which include the seamless, highly capable ensemble work among Mays, Watkins, Tennant and Barry Ward (as Jay’s right-hand man) and the appropriately musty evocation of the period by the production designer Anna Higginson and the cinematographer Mark Wolf.
The case plays out against the backdrop of the Margaret Thatcher years in Britain, and the series weaves in connections. The police are strapped for funds, and Jay can’t get his hands on a word processor, let alone the personnel he needs to track down leads on missing persons. One of the central dramatic tensions is his push to identify all of the victims before the higher-ups shut down the investigation to save money.
There is also the theme, touched on fairly gingerly, of the particular vulnerability of young gay men at the time and Nilsen’s calculated exploitation of them. When Nilsen opts for a diminished-capacity defense at his trial, his gayness subtly complicates the government’s effort to prove that he’s sane.
These threads, however, along with the elements of standard police-procedural work and courtroom drama, are all secondary to the psychological puzzle at the center of “Des.” Masters, the biographer, and Jay, the cop, offer various tentative answers: Nilsen’s needs for attention and control, a Freudian link in his youth between love and death. The real answer the show seems to be offering, but is too polite to put into words, is that some people just don’t know when to stop.
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