There’s three sides to every serial killer story. There’s the killer, the victims, and those out for justice. What makes Four Lives so compelling is that it’s a story where those hunting down the killer are the friends and family of the victims. The killer is a heartless monster – played by UK comedian Stephen Merchant in a fairly startling change of pace – and as for the police? It seems they could hardly care less.
Over sixteen months between 2014 and 2015, London resident Stephen Port murdered four men. Dubbed the Grindr Killer, his victims were all in their early 20s who he met via online social networks and dating apps. The bodies of the men were all found in the vicinity of his flat – he left his first victim on the footpath outside his front door – and while Port was later convicted of perverting the course of justice due to his differing accounts of what happened regarding the first body, he only spent a few months in jail. After he was released, he killed his next three victims.
Looked at now, it seems obvious something was up. Looked at back then… it’s still obvious something strange was going on. It just wasn’t obvious to the local police, who are in no way the heroes of Four Lives.
Instead, it was up to the families of the victims to fight for justice. While the police seem to have been happy to write the dead men off because they were young, gay and had died from drug overdoses, it was left to their families to point out time and time again what was really going on. Four Lives is a gripping, at times shocking drama, but it’s also a much deserved salute to their tenacity.
The first episode focuses on Port’s first two victims: 23-year-old Anthony Walgate (Tim Preston) is found dead outside Port’s flat; the body of 22-year-old Slovakian Gabriel Kovari (Jakub Svec) is discovered by a dog walker in a nearby graveyard. The police aren’t interested in much more than surface details; it’s up to Walgate’s mother, Sarah Sak (Sheridan Smith) to push things forward. She doesn’t believe the drug overdose story the police are happy to swallow, and it doesn’t take much digging to find out her son was going to meet a man he met on an escort website the night of his death.
The next two victims – Daniel Whitworth (Leo Flanagan) and Jack Taylor (Paddy Rowan) – have equally tenacious friends and family. It’s they who are putting the case together, finding the links between the dead men and Stephen Port, returning to the police time and time again only to be brushed off. And as for Port?
Enter Stephen Merchant. He’s best known for working with Ricky Gervais, with whom he co-created The Office and appeared alongside in Extras, though he also has a lengthy solo career including his own sitcom Hello, Ladies. He’s quite possibly the last person you’d expect to be playing a serial killer. Even in his previous dramatic work (he played a Gestapo officer in Jojo Rabbit) he usually provides comic relief; any laughs you might get from seeing him here will be extremely short-lived.
A comedian making the move to drama is nothing unusual, and being cast against type is often a way to stir up attention. But as Port, Merchant never feels like stunt casting. Port is a chilling, soulless void, the total opposite of the lanky goofball persona Merchant’s comedy work relies on.
It’s a stunning performance. If you know his earlier work, it’s even more impressive. The underlying emotion here is a low-key sadness, even as his behaviour becomes even more chilling. On some basic level, Merchant plays him as a failure of a human being, drained of life and warmth. The silly, self-aware humour that you might expect from Merchant is nowhere to be found.
In the same way the series focuses on Port’s victims, Merchant’s performance keeps the spotlight away from Port. His performance is at the heart of the series, but he plays Port as a void. The real humanity in Four Lives lies in the people whose lives he stole; in denying their humanity with their half-hearted, disinterested investigation, the police are almost as guilty as he is.
Four Lives premieres exclusively in Australia at 9.30pm, Thursday 14 April on SBS. Episodes air weekly and stream at SBS On Demand on the day they go to air. Start with episode 1:
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