Sunday, June 16, 2013

Scapegoat: Du Maurier’s Dead Ringer

If her uncle had not been such an idiot, Elizabeth II never would have been Queen.  Due to his dubious judgment, his brother’s daughter will soon ascend to the throne.  The caddish Johnny Spence half-jokingly describes the days leading up to her coronation a period of monarch-less anarchy.  It will indeed make a fitting backdrop for Charles Sturridge’s completely Anglicized adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s The Scapegoat (trailer here), which airs in syndication on participating PBS stations, including Chicago’s WTTW this coming Saturday night.

John Standing has just been downsized out of job as a boarding school teacher.  With no family to support and lacking any significant ambitions or prospects, he sets out on vaguely defined walking tour.  Stopping at a seedy public house, he is startled to come face to face with his dead ringer, the wastrel Johnny Spence.  After a night of imbibing with the charming but overbearing Spence, Standing is surprised to wake up and find the man has absconded with his anonymity, leaving him to take his position of wealth and privilege.

Unfortunately, Standing soon deduces the Spence family fortunes are sagging.  His doppelganger was hoping to save their glass foundry with a Hail Mary business deal, but he rather doubts the playboy pulled it off.  However, he is quite charmed to meet the man’s spirited young daughter (Mary Lou, a.k.a. Piglet) and his nervous wife Frances.  Conversely, he is quite uncomfortable around Nina, Spence’s sister-in-law with whom he seems to be having an affair with.  Yet, nobody seems to suspect his reluctant impersonation, not even his resentful brother Paul or their morphine addicted mother, Lady Spence.  Frankly, the family might just be better off with the new and improved Johnny Spence, but the old one is still out there, up to no good.

Produced by ITV, Scapegoat is a nifty little thriller that had a spot of film festival play before its American television run. Transferred from the south of France to post-war Britain, Sturridge’s adaptation is tightly paced and uses the impending coronation as a clever metaphor.  As the director of most of the beloved Brideshead Revisited miniseries as well as the masterful A Handful of Dust, Sturridge has a keen feel for Twentieth Century British period pieces.  He displays a nice touch with Scapegoat, combining a Downton-esque vibe with film noir-ish elements.

Logically, Sir Alec Guinness (the master of multiple parts) had first crack at the Standing/Spence role in Robert Hamer’s 1959 feature film.  Yet, Matthew Rhys (now probably best known for FX’s The Americans) steps into his shoes admirably well.  In fact, this might be his strongest small screen work, eclipsing his suitably brooding John Jasper in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  His Spence is charismatically wicked, but he also makes a convincingly confused and depressed everyman as Standing.  Alice Orr-Ewing is a bit vanilla as poor Frances, but Andrew Scott (Jim Moriarty in Sherlock) adds some edgy energy into the mix as Paul Spence.  Yet, Sturridge’s wife and Brideshead co-star Phoebe Nicholls occasionally upstages everyone as the smart-than-her-employers housekeeper, Charlotte.

Altogether, The Scapegoat is quite cinematic by television standards.  Handsome looking and intelligently written, it is definitely recommended for fans of Brit mysteries and literary dramas when it airs on select PBS stations later in the month.