Short Review: Loved it.
Martin Guerre. Remember that? Or perhaps the Richard Gere/Jodie Foster ‘Sommersby’. The Man in the Iron Mask. The Devil’s Double. Kevin Kline in Dave. All films with ‘look-a-likes’ and people assuming identities. The Scapegoat was kind of along those lines.
Based on the Daphne Du Maurier novel, it had all the hallmarks of gothic melodrama. Body doubles and mistaken identities. Secrets from the past. Sinister housekeepers. And it was a real return to an old-school ITV adaptation, replete with the top of the cream stars, dark lighting, 1950s period costume, large manor house and a shooting party, and a happy ending.
Matthew Rhys plays the hero(es). Although luckily there isn’t need for too much split-camera action. He is John Standing, a schoolmaster originally from Wales, who has been sacked because Greek is no longer seen as important for prep school boys. He’s been replaced by a French teacher, so Standing decides to head out for a walking tour before he decides his next move. At a pub near the train station he is mistaken by the landlord for someone else – Johnny Spence. They meet in the toilets (steady) and Spence is enthralled. He gets Standing drunk, swaps coats, talks about how he hates his responsiblities, and before you know it scarpered off and left Standing in the inn with all of Spence’s belongings.
I didn’t know the story before I started watching and wondered if Spence was going to be a murderer who tried to pin things on his double, but it wasn’t quite that kind of story. Spence is the head of a rich family, who own a glass furnace and employ lots of people. His mother, the ladyship, Eileen Atkins, is addicted to morphine and stays in bed a lot. His younger brother, Paul (Andrew Scott) is ignored because he is younger. Spence has a wife (Frances) and daughter, Mary Lou, but is a womaniser. He is sleeping with Paul’s wife (Sheridan Smith) and various others, as is common knowledge. His sister Blanche (Jodhi May) is a lesbian who despises Spence because she is cleverer than him and because he seduced and drove her girlfriend to suicide. And the furnace works is not doing well, and Spence has failed to sign a vital contract to keep it going. Therefore he runs away leaving Standing in his place.
George, the chauffeur, picks John Standing up and takes him home. Though he protests that he’s not who they think he is, they think he’s just hungover and being annoying. He’s soon enthralled by his not-really-his daughter, and the business. He likes his wife, who was bullied by her real husband but likes this new version. He works out how to save the business – putting Blanche in charge, repairs family relations, and even encourages his mother out of bed. He is a hero. But then the real Spence comes back, and tries to murder/force suicide on his wife, Frances. If she dies, he’ll inherit a million pounds, especially as she hasn’t given him a son. She’s weak and agrees to a drug overdose and to write a note. But Mary Lou sees and tells her (not-real) father that she saw him with her mother. Standing realises that Spence is back and runs back to the house to save his (not-real) wife in time. He then tracks Spence down and murders him/throws him into the furnace.
Back home. He thinks he has solved things and will go back to his old life. But then Charlotte, the sinister housekeeper, corners him in the corridor. She’s realised that he’s not ‘him’, but why not stay? She tries to compare him to Princess Elizabeth who is about to be crowned (it’s Autumn 1952). Flashforward to the coronation and he (Standing) is still there as Spence and no-one is the wiser. Everyone’s happy and Frances is pregnant (presumably with a boy).