Friday, December 19, 2014

Movie Review - The Scapegoat

The Scapegoat
Based on the book by Daphne Du Maurier
Starring: Matthew Rhys, Eileen Atkins, Anton Lesser, Jodhi May, Phoebe Nicholls, Andrew Scott, Sheridan Smith, Pip Torrens, and Julian Wadham
Release Date: 2012
Rating: ★★★

John Standing has lost his teaching job, Greek being thought archaic when conversational French is far more useful. That night in a bar he is mistaken for another man, a man that looks just like him. They spend the night talking, or as Johnny Spence views it, having a conversation with himself. Come morning Johnny Spence has fled with John Standing's belongings and Johnny's life is thrust on John. He never thought that he could slip so easily into a life of wealth and luxury, yet he seems to be doing just that. John slowly tries to repair the damage that Johnny has wrought to his own family and soon he realizes that he loves them all and wants to stay. But Johnny has other ideas as how to best use this unexpected boon that having a doppelganger gives him.

Now, as you probably know, I am an Anglophile in the extreme. I  long to live in "this scepter'd isle... this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England!" During the Jubilee Year I sat on my couch at ungodly hours to watch flotillas and parades. Yet never once did I think, you know what would make a great paring? Daphne Du Maurier and the Queen's coronation. Because they exist in different worlds and never the twain shall meet until someone at itv went, hey, here's a wacky idea, why don't we take Daphne Du Maurier's The Scapegoat and make it for the jubilee! We'll strip out all the nuance of the story and totally ignore the fact that it's set in France and make it about "those who have greatness thrust upon them" therefore drawing a parallel between Queen Elizabeth and John Standing, who both have responsibilities they weren't prepared for foisted on them. Um no. This makes an interesting movie, one that can stand on it's own fine and works better that way because as an adaptation it leaves so much to be desired.

The Britishness that was thrust upon the story changes everything. The setting of the story in France was deliberate on Du Maurier's part. She not only wanted to explore her family's history of glass making in France but she wanted to deal with the issues of what scars are left behind within a country that collaborated with the enemy. The past and the present and the future of her characters all hinges on what was sacrificed because of war. John, living in a world without attachments, doesn't understand that everything in life is about compromises. The compromises we make with our friends, our families, and even our enemies. He stumbles about trying to find this balance between daughter, wife, mother, lover. His struggle and final acceptance is the driving force of the narrative, whereas the film version of John thrives after one or two missteps.

No secrets, just happiness. WTF! Has Charles Sturridge, the writer of this adaptation, ever actually read and understood any Du Maurier? It's ambiguity in the end all the way! What are we to learn about someone who takes up the offered mantle of responsibility and doesn't stumble? Nothing is to be learned! Sure, we can compare him to George VI and how he stepped into the vacuum left by his Nazis loving brother, but that's not what this book is about! There's nothing that gets my goat more then taking a book, and instead of exploring or expanding on one or another theme, they cram the book into what they want it to be instead of what it is. You can see why Du Maurier was always hesitant about anyone adapting her work; they just don't get it.

In fact if you look at the new setup of the plot, it doesn't work. John Standing is fired at the beginning of the movie and therefore has no life to go back to. Whereas the book's John has a life that his duplicate is currently living and destroying. Without a life to go back to why would he even care about leaving? Why would he want to go back to nothing? It doesn't make sense? Though none of the changes make sense because each change so drastically alters the story that it is truly an unstable house of cards. As for the wife's pregnancy... well, without it I just saw that house of cards starting to fall...

Yet what I missed most was that unease that Du Maurier's writing always captures. The oddities of humanity and the inability to define the grey areas of the human psyche. The most obvious example of character shift is in the young daughter, the very French Marie-Noel, being turned into the very benign Mary Lou. Marie-Noel was religiously devote and had visions and mortified her flesh, here we have a girl who has a funeral for a dead fish, a stuffed rabbit that says goodnight, and wants nothing more then to read Charlotte's Web, versus some saintly tract. Ugh, please. This isn't Du Maurier, this is Enid Blyton.

Each character is slowly stripped of what made them unique and interesting till we have these stock characters that could work in any story. The grey areas are gone. Neither John is a saint or a sinner in Du Maurier's eyes, yet this adaptation clearly wants to view the true John Spence the devil of imagination. He has nothing redeeming about himself, nothing worthwhile, he is pure evil. He beats his mistress, he tries to murder his wife, he takes his doppelganger out to the wood shed... he is a stock villain. In Du Maurier's world nothing is this simple, nothing is black and white. Nothing in this adaptation rings true the deeper you dig. Life isn't this simple and that's why Du Maurier's work endures, because it shows us all aspects of humanity, whereas this adaptation is less then a two hour diversion you will soon forget.


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