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The Lie: The Murder of Grace Millane Review

Two photos of Grace Millane at different ages in the documentary film The Lie: The Murder of Grace Millane

Helena Coan’s documentary The Lie: The Murder of Grace Millane uses CCTV footage to disprove a murderer’s blatant deceptions.

It’s an unfortunate symptom of societal attitudes that a story about a young woman murdered after a date with a man she met on the internet is often followed by cries of ‘why would she do that?’ Such abhorrent victim-blaming is not the focus of Helena Coan’s The Lie: The Murder of Grace Millane, a documentary on the 2018 murder of a British backpacker, but perhaps it should have been, as it’s certainly one of the slightly too clinical film’s most salient points.

In Auckland, New Zealand, whilst on a gap year after finishing university, Grace met up with a man she’d been messaging on a dating app. They visited various pubs, had copious alcoholic drinks, and then made their way back to his hotel. It was there that the man, Jesse Shane Kempson, strangled her to death, before taking a shower, going out to buy a suitcase, stuffing her body into said suitcase, and driving over 30 kilometres away to dump it in dense woodland. When questioned by police, Kempson claimed he had ‘panicked’ after Grace died as the result of some ‘rough sex’.  

Coan’s film is predominantly composed of CCTV footage, edited together – by Andrew Hulme and Chiara Armentano – to show as accurate a timeline as possible of Grace’s final hours, as well as the movements of Kempson the morning after. It paints a picture of a man who methodically tried to cover his tracks, albeit not very effectively, and completely contradicts the information he gave to police in the initial interviews prior to his arrest.

The Lie: The Murder of Grace Millane shows Kempson – whose name was initially kept out of press coverage due to New Zealand court rulings but released in 2020 following a rejection of his appeal – as cold, calculated and seemingly entirely unbothered by the ‘accident’. It’s frustrating and infuriating to watch, and Coan’s intent is to amplify that discomfort. The documentary is showing one thing while Kempson and his lawyers are telling another, and Coan understands the necessity and power in undermining such blatant lies.

CCTV footage in the documentary film The Lie: The Murder of Grace Millane
The Lie: The Murder of Grace Millane (Brainstorm Media)

Each batch of CCTV footage is intercut with voiceover segments that include police statements, interviews, media clips and court recordings, with establishing shots of key locations rounding it out. There are no interviews with Grace’s family, nor are there any talking-head interviews with anybody directly involved, and as such it can feel a little too clinical, even repetitive, at times, despite the emotional weight of the story being told.

The Lie: The Murder of Grace Millane sets out to disprove everything Kempson claimed with hard video evidence, but skirts past what is perhaps the film’s most poignant aspect: the tragedy of the so called ‘rough sex defence’. It doesn’t linger on the horrendous victim blaming that followed Grace’s death, the comments from people claiming it was her “fault” and that she should have “known better”. Coan dedicates the film to women who have been victims of violence and the ‘rough sex defence’, poignantly listing their names in a heartbreakingly long list, but it feels like she misses a step in not making this the film’s focus. Instead of cataloguing Kempson’s movements, The Lie could have made a powerful statement on how dangerous the defence is, amplifying the importance of clarity in regards to cases like Grace’s from a legal standpoint.

But as a whole, Coan’s documentary, despite feeling a little too clinical at times, does effectively highlight the atrocity of Kempson’s actions, the tragedy of Grace’s death, and the grief felt not only by Grace’s family, but by people all around the world. It doesn’t linger on its most interesting aspect, but is an engaging, interesting and a little infuriating watch for true crime fans nonetheless.

Get it on Apple TV

The Lie: The Murder of Grace Millane will be released in US theaters and on demand on March 29, 2024.

The Lie: The Murder of Grace Millane Trailer (Brainstorm Media)

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