Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A streaming must-see: Charles Sturridge's adaptation of duMaurier's THE SCAPEGOAT

British filmmaker Charles Sturridge (shown below in younger days) has had an interesting career, though not one to which most Americans will have given much thought. Best known, I should think, for the Brideshead Revisited TV mini-series from 1981, he has also made three movies very much worth seeing: A Handful of Dust (from 1988), Where Angels Fear to Tread (1991) and Fairy Tale: A True Story (1997). His successes have been in the classic, what we might call Masterpiece Theater mode, yet his choice of projects (or perhaps what have landed in his lap) tend to be quirky and not as easy to pigeon-hole as some critics or audiences might like. A Handful of Dust, based on the Evelyn Waugh novel, was for its time almost like a deliberate smack in the face of folk who love "classy" Brit TV and film; Where Angels Fear to Tread, in which a lovely, sexual Helen Mirren comes (and goes) with shocking brevity, also rocked (a bit gently, based as it was on an E.M. Forster novel) family, tradition, class and the meaning of decency; while A Fairy Tale, in its strange and delightful way, combined the likes of Harry Houdini with Arthur Conan Doyle, Peter Pan, photography and, yes, fairies.

Now comes what may be one of Sturridge's best films -- THE SCAPEGOAT -- which he has adapted from one of the lesser-known novels of Daphne du Maurier, and from which another movie was adapted back in 1959, which starred Alec Guinness and Bette Davis. (TrustMovies saw that film when he was in his late teens but barely remembers it now. Next time it plays TCM, he'll have to grab it.) In the novel a Britisher visiting France runs into his doppelganger/
double, and soon finds himself impersonating this Frenchman and infiltrating the man's family and business. Sturridge has -- more interestingly and a little more believably, too -- set the scene in England, in the early 1950s at the time of the coronation of Elizabeth II.

The look-alikes here are played by Matthew Rhys (above), about whom differences of class and character are all. John Standing, at right, is a decent, if rather untested, school teacher, while Johnny Spence (at left) is a aristocratic cad, someone the Brits might call a "bounder." As the men meet almost at the film's beginning, we know but little about Standing (he has just been let go from his teaching job at a prestigious boy's school, below) but almost nothing about Spence.

What happens after this initial meeting, and from there onward in this fast-moving and often riveting combination thriller/family drama, is full of both the expected and the not-so. What is most surprising about this genuinely stirring movie is how it manages to subvert expectation to become a kind of lovely, moving thriller -- one that's charming and imaginative as it tosses us into someone else's world. Thrills, you see, can come in all kinds of packages, and Sturridge has once again chosen a work that offers him the opportunity to pull, but gently, the rug out from under the expectations of his audience.

The family into which Standing becomes a part is inhabited by some pretty caddish and unhappy sorts, including Johnny's mother, Lady Spence (Eileen Atkins, at right) who never seems to be able to rise from her bed...

...as well as a sister (the wonderful, as always, Jodhi May); a callow brother, played by Andrew Scott (at left, three photos below); a lovely, pliant wife (Alice Orr-Ewing), an ador-able, spirited daughter (Eloise Webbat bottom, left), and a sexy conniving sister-in-law (Sheridan Smith, below, and lately of Hysteria) with whom Johnny has clearly been having an affair.

Around the periphery scurry other characters: the family's maid (a fine performane from Phoebe Nichols), its clergyman (Anton Lesser, below right), the take-charge chauffeur (Pip Torrens) and a young Frenchwoman (the great Sylvie Testud) who relocated to London during the war, it seems.

How John manages to take Johnny's place in the family members' minds and finally in their hearts provides the meat of the movie, and what a tasty, nourishing feast it does become. Ms du Maurier seldom wrote uninteresting plots, which is one reason so many of her evergreen works have been adapted into films -- Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel to Don't Look Now and The Birds, among many others.

This one proves so due to its doppelganger premise, which is always a good hook, even more so for what Sturridge does with it. His specific time period -- as Queen Elizabeth is about to be crowned and television is making its way into England -- proves just about perfect for the tale he tells. The movie begins with the arrival of this aristocratic family's first television and ends with the family watching the coronation on their new and oh-so-tiny set. Ms Nichols' final speech, about this event and how it applies to what's going on in the family, is a humdinger -- making beautifully clear the reason for the particular place, period, and doppelganger theme.

Midway to two-thirds' through the film, what must happen in these movies about "doubles" does occur. How the filmmaker handles this -- in an almost perfunctory fashion: it's the most typically thrilling but also least commanding part of the film -- indicates where his interest really lies: in character rather than event.

Who of all these characters figures out which man is which proves a large part of the exquisite fun here, while giving two of the performers in this crack ensemble cast the chance to really shine. The Scapegoat, first shown, I believe, on British television, is now available via Netflix streaming (you can add it to your NF queue, as well, then wait until the time, if and when, it becomes available here on DVD). This is such a wonderful, old-fashioned tale done so well that it qualifies as don't-miss entertainment.

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