CIFF 2012: The Scapegoat (2012)

Director/Screenwriter: Charles Sturridge

2012 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

More than 50 years after Robert Hamer, director of such classic British films as Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Long Memory (1952), directed a faithful adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel The Scapegoat, another well-regarded British director, Charles Sturridge (“Brideshead Revisited”), has given the story another go. Moving it from France to England and slightly tweaking the motivation of the central characters has yielded a less schematic, more psychologically true rendering of the identity-switch theme at the center of the tale.

Unlike the original, in which a schoolteacher has his fateful meeting with his doppelganger while on vacation, in this tale, John Standing (Matthew Rhys) is a Greek teacher in a primary school who is let go because conversational French is thought to be a more useful subject for the languages department to offer. With prospects for another job dim because of his obsolete skill, he literally decides to drift, that is, take a walking tour of England. Thus, when he meets his double, Johnny Spence (Rhys), in a pub, gets drunk with him, and wakes up to find all of his belongings missing and Johnny’s chauffeur George (Pip Torrens) waiting to take him back to his estate in a Rolls Royce, John has no circumstantial ties that bind him to the truth.

Naturally, one small lie leads to another, as he is introduced to “his” family—his wife Frances (Alice Orr-Ewing), his daughter Mary Louise (Eloise Webb), his sister Blanche (Jodhi May), his brother and sister-in-law Paul and Nina (Andrew Scott and Sheridan Smith), and his mother Lady Spence (Eileen Atkins). The imperious housekeeper Charlotte (Phoebe Nicholls) shuttles John from one person to the next, and the poor man has to stumble through conversations that mean nothing to him and try to locate his mother’s room in the vast mansion, blundering into Nina’s room at one point. Her embrace indicates that she and Johnny were having an affair.

It becomes apparent fairly quickly that Johnny has wrecked his family and made a complete hash of the foundry business that built their fortune; his inability to negotiate a badly needed contract sealed his determination to flee from his life. Once John gets the lay of the land and starts to insinuate himself into the Spence household, he learns that Johnny and Lady Spence engineered his loveless marriage to Frances to get their hands on her trust fund—one that will not be settled because she has not produced a male heir or died. Lady Spence, shrewd and bitter, has taken to her bed where she is attended by her priest, Father McReady (Anton Lesser), and Charlotte, and uses morphine supplied by Johnny to provide her only slice of happiness. Paul’s confidence has been sapped by his mother’s hectoring putdowns and preference for Johnny, and Blanche hates Johnny with every fiber of her being for a variety of reasons.

The idea of the good versus evil twin, or dark versus light, has been explored in works as disparate as the various versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the melodrama A Stolen Life (1948), and the Star Wars franchise. The influence of a good nature, however, is more the thrust of this film as it downplays the thriller aspects of the Du Maurier novel. However, John isn’t exactly Pollyanna playing the glad game to cheer everyone up. Instead, he uses the gentle patience he developed as a teacher and his desire for the loving family he doesn’t have, echoing the feelings of the orphaned Joey in the family drama In the Family (2011), to fall in love with the Spences and give them what Johnny never could. He owns up to the lies he told out of ignorance, the most important of which is that he landed the contract, but offers his ideas to put the business back on the right track after doing his homework about the financial situation and business plan. He lets Paul take the spotlight, encourages Lady Spence to get out of bed by telling her the house needs her, and shows a deep understanding for Blanche’s rage and grief by saying he wants to make things right.

One has to work to suspend disbelief not only that John can put things to right in only a week, but also that none of the Spences suspects John’s deception. Only Johnny’s French mistress (Sylvie Testud) and Charlotte guess that John is a fraud, perhaps highlighting how blind the upper class is to the reality around them. However, George and the foundry manager never suspect him either, so it’s anyone’s guess whether Sturridge intended to imply this subtext. On the other hand, making John a potential member of the permanently unemployed was a stroke of genius in driving his decisions in this film, though the film tends to underplay the obvious material appeal of impersonating an aristocrat, even one whose business is in trouble.

Welsh actor Matthew Rhys is unfamiliar to me, but he has a strong, but mutable physical bearing that can move easily from a sacked teacher to a lord of the manor, thus largely getting over one improbable hurdle this story poses. He adopts a different spine for John and Johnny, and is impressive in both, making me wonder if the film actually had identical twins in the two roles. As can normally be expected of a British cast, the performances are uniformly wonderful, though they fall just short of being the cohesive ensemble of other films. The look of the film is appropriately rarified and atmospheric, and fans of PBS’s Masterpiece dramas and such prestige films as The King’s Speech (2010) will lap The Scapegoat up, particularly as the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II forms an underlying rationale for John’s final decision to stay or go. The Scapegoat is a finely crafted, if somewhat superficial character study that is engrossing to the end.

The Scapegoat screens Thursday, October 18, at 8:15 p.m. and Sunday, October 21, at 1:15 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St., Chicago.

Previous coverage

Tey: Telling the story of one day—the last day—in the life of a young man, a fact known, celebrated, and mourned throughout his community, this film confronts our peculiarly human tragedy of knowing we will die, and gives us a few answers about coping with that frightening inevitability. (Senegal)

Mr. Sophistication: A familiar story of a comedian trying to make a comeback is made compelling by great performances, an intelligent script, and deft direction and camerawork. (USA)

The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni: The life of Egyptian movie star Soad Hosni, a cultural icon and touchpoint for unity in the Middle East, is interpreted in a biopic using nothing but footage from her 82 films. (Lebanon)

Shun Li and the Poet: A tone poem of a film depicting the longings of a Chinese emigrant to Italy and the loving friendship she forms with an elderly Yugoslavian man in a small fishing village near Venice. (Italy)

The Last Sentence: A gorgeously photographed biopic of Swedish newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt that focuses attention on his romantic intrigues as he wages a relentless campaign against Hitler and Swedish neutrality. (Sweden)

The Exam: In a taut thriller set in 1957 Hungary, a member of the secret police unknowingly undergoes a harrowing loyalty test under the watchful eye of his own mentor. (Hungary)

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    18th/10/2012 to 3:36 pm

    “The look of the film is appropriately rarified and atmospheric, and fans of PBS’s Masterpiece dramas and such prestige films as The King’s Speech (2010) will lap The Scapegoat up, particularly as the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II forms an underlying rationale for John’s final decision to stay or go.”

    The central deceit has always interested me, and certainly Sturridge has helmed some exceptional work in the past as you note. Count me in the lap brigade with this one. Hope it does secure a theatrical release in the coming months. Your most engaging coverage of the CIFF continues.

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