As of last week, the final episode of the TV show “Des” was added to Sundance Now. “Des” is a true-crime drama that follows one of the most well-known serial killers in UK history: Dennis Nilsen. Nicknamed the “kindly killer,” Nilsen murdered young boys and men in Soho from 1978 to 1983. All this occurred right under the noses of the police, who never once realized that the men murdered by Nilsen were even dead.
“Des” stars David Tennant in the titular role of Dennis Nilsen. It also stars Daniel Mays. Mays and Tennant had previously worked together on the adaptation of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s “Good Omens.” Tennant also had an established relationship with director Lewis Arnold. The pair had previously worked together on “Broadchurch.”
The television show is based upon Brian Masters book, “Killing for Company.” The book contains interviews with Nilsen. Uniquely enough, an actor portrays Masters in the TV show as he interviews Des throughout the trial process.
What’s special about “Des” is that it in no way, shape or form romanticizes Dennis Nilsen. Rather than showing Des gruesomely murdering his victims, the show opts to start with him getting “caught,” which is used as a very loose word here as the police technically did not catch Nilsen; rather, he turned himself into the police. This exact moment starts the three-part miniseries. In many true-crime based shows or even dramas, the actions or the people themselves are romanticized. Take for example the film “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” which tells the true story of Ted Bundy (played by Zac Efron). The film itself almost glorifies, or at least fails to completely condemn, Bundy’s heinous crimes. I found it very refreshing to see Dennis Nilsen treated as a serial killer rather than just a fictional person.
Tennant shines as Nilsen. In fact, many reviewers have already predicted that Tennant will be nominated for a BAFTA for his portrayal of Nilsen. His understated yet equally compelling performance completely steals the show. Tennant somehow manages to add an eeriness to Nilsen as he does the most mundane of tasks, like simply speaking about things unrelated to his murders. There was one scene in particular that sent chills down my spine. During an interrogation with the police, Nilsen claims to have cared more about his victims than the police did when they were alive, and, in a way, he’s right. Nilsen’s victims typically were men or boys who were homeless or addicted to drugs. He claims that he gave them a nice meal and let them stay the night, which is, sadly, more than anyone else was doing for them. In that moment, viewers can visibly see the detective’s look of realization that what Nilsen had said was correct, because many of Nilsen’s victims were just lost posters on a wall; the police were not actively searching for the men because they were deemed as “undesirable,” i.e. drugs abusers or homeless. Tennant’s portrayal of Nilsen will be talked about for years to come.
Daniel Mays stands out as detective Peter Jay, the detective tasked with identifying possible victims of Nilsen. Mays brings an emotion to the role as his character struggles while desperately searching for evidence to incriminate Des. The dire hopelessness of his character as he is told that the government will not be funding the investigation any longer is an unforgettable moment. The micro-emotions that cross May’s face as he realizes that every victim will not receive justice was absolutely striking.
The entirety of “Des” is now available to watch on Sundance Now.