29 October 2012

The Scapegoat (Charles Sturridge, 2012, UK)

If you were ever a big fan of Bette Davis or Alec Guinness, you've probably seen the 1959 version of this story, adapted from a Daphne Dumaurier novel. My impression from my vague memory and from what little I've read is that this version is fairly different from the older version, and, from what I've read, this is supposedly more faithful to the source material.

It's 1952, and boarding school teacher John (Matthew Rhys) has just been relieved of his position, due apparently to budget cuts. He decides he's going to travel around the world, but before he even gets to the train station he runs into a man who looks exactly like him, playboy Johnny. Johnny oversees his family's estate and their glass foundry and like many titled families in this era it all seems about to come crashing down. How alike can they possibly look, you might ask... Well, they're both played by the same actor. Johnny contrives for them to switch places so he can disappear for a while, and in a string of scenes that is more trying to the patience than anything else, John is for various reasons compelled to play along, usually because the people around him are acting like no person would ever act.  Anyway, once he commits to playing the part, the movie picks up a little steam. There is this interesting theme about atoning for another man's sins, but in general the film plays like a glossy made for tv film, which is what it is.

All of this occurs on the eve of Queen Elizabeth's coronation, which seems to hover at the background throughout the movie until they finally watch the coronation occur on the newfangled television machine. I'm not keyed in enough on recent UK history to understand the significance of this, but it's interesting that Johnny's daughter's deceased goldfish is named Mrs. Simpson. Interesting, but again I'm not really sure what the significance is. One thing that bothered me about this film is that the values embedded in the film struck me as somewhat anachronistic. It's very clearly leaning toward more contemporary attitudes, which makes sense, but I found it distracting. I also worry it's the sort of thing that leads to nostalgia for a kind of brutal classism that doesn't deserve to be nostalgized. But of course I grew up in America in a pocket of Wisconsin that still retained the progressive values that put the state on the political map, so I may see the film differently than other viewers. All in all, it's an engaging made for tv film with an engaging cast, and it does pretty well, aside from a big chunk in the first third which I actually kind of found hard to watch.

Afterword: Now that I think of it, I suppose you have this theme about the social changes in England, possibly an increased democratization and a transition into the contemporary era. The queen replaces the king, television takes hold, and a working class person literally replaces the son of a Lady. I'm still not sure how Mrs. Simpson fits in, other than seeing her symbolic passing as another symbol of the death of a bygone era.

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