Cold Light Of Day


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Cold Light Of Day
"There's a climate of loneliness that stretches far beyond the central character."

Between 1978 and 1983, serial killer Dennis Nilsen murdered at least 12 young men and boys in the two successive flats where he lived, storing their corpses for long periods of time before dismembering them and disposing of them in the drains. Made six years after his arrest, this film dramatises his story, mingling it with elements of fiction and exploring the sense of disconnection between a world in which such things can happen and our own.

The real Nilsen described confessing his crimes as a relief and was matter of fact with the police in interviews. Here, director Fhiona-Louise tries to strike a balance between that and depicting the horror which she imagines the investigating detectives must have felt. The interrogation acts as a framing device for the action, which begins with the Nilsen character - renamed Jorden Marsh - forming a relationship with a financially dependent young man and becoming jealous because he's sleeping around. Impulsive violence stemming from these feelings is presented as the trigger for a series of murders. There's a suggestion that Marsh is trying to resist his urges, and a lot of focus on his denial of necrophiliac desires.

One thing that's missing here is any overt reflection on the homophobia prevalent at the time. We encounter it only through its secondary effects: the number of young queer men drifting through life with no-one to look out for them, the near absence of safety precautions taken by male sex workers in comparison to female ones, the assumption that a single man must be in want of a wife. Those too young to remember should note that this was a period in which it was easy to be unaware of the potential for relationships between men to be loving and lasting. There's a climate of loneliness that stretches far beyond the central character.

Despite the reworking of the story as fiction, star Bob Flag bears an uncanny resemblance to Nilsen which adds to the underlying sense of discomfort. Most striking, however, is the way that Fhiona-Louise frames her shots. In close, we often see the characters in fragments, sometimes without their faces, like an invitation to lose sight of their humanity as the killer does, or a gruesome reminder of how he would eventually dissect them (something which is not shown directly). Watching from staircases above or from low angles creates a sense of illicit observation and sometimes seems to suggest that we're sharing the perspective of the cat who slinks around the apartment building ad is the first witness to the crimes.

Throughout, the only person who seems alert to the humanity of others is the interrogating officer, and interesting choice given how notoriously hostile the police generally were towards gay men at the time. Played by Geoffrey Greenhill, he comes across as an intruder in an amoral universe, losing his temper as he tries to impress meaning upon it. This sense of moral vacuum is the real horror at the heart of the tale. It's an otherwise unassuming film, deliberately drab, but it points to a hollowness in British society in which the murders make as much sense as anything else.

Reviewed on: 27 Oct 2020
Share this with others on...
Cold Light Of Day packshot
A fictionalised take on the story of serial killer Dennis Nilsen.

Director: Fhiona-Louise

Writer: Fhiona-Louise

Starring: Bob Flag, Martin Byrne-Quinn, Geoffrey Greenhill, Jackie Cox, Mark Hawkins, Andrew Edmans

Year: 1989

Runtime: 81 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


Search database:

If you like this, try:

10 Rillington Place