In a climate where even the middling sci-fi thriller The Butterfly Effect warrants a remake, it’s appropriate that we watched a remake this week at Movie Klub. The novel The Scapegoat, by Daphne du Maurier (author of another novel that’s been made into a Movie Klub movie, Rebecca) was first adapted in 1959, starring Alec Guiness and Bette Davis. In 2012 it was adapted again by director Charles Sturridge, for airing on the British ITV network. I haven’t seen the 1959 version, but if the remake is any indication, it’s a fine film. This was one of the happiest surprises I’ve had at Movie Klub.
Matthew Rhys (lately of the FX series The Americans) plays John, a teacher at a boys’ school who has lost his job before the movie even takes place. He heads off to London to drink in the first pub he can find, where he has an accidental meeting with Johnny Spence (Rhys again), who is his physical lookalike in every way. After a night of drinking with his double, John wakes up in a hotel to find Spence gone, and Spence’s driver at the door persuading him to come back to the palatial Spence estate. John steps into the Spence family with ease, but he soon learns that there were a great many reasons why Johnny Spence might want to leave that life behind.
The incredible ease with which John steps into the Spence life is not accidental. The whole point of this story is to deliver commentary on the British aristocracy, and to the common man. However, the absurdist spin that this movie puts on his abrupt transition into Spence life is a nice touch. The 1959 film is quite serious about the whole affair; according to its Wikipedia page, when John denies that he is a Spence, he is diagnosed with schizophrenia. The remake understands that it’s even more effective to play those moments as comedy, thanks to the typical bone-dry English wit. (“I’m not Mister Spence!” “Of course not, Mister Spence.”) There’s no schizophrenia here, just a withering acceptance of the joke that the Spences believe is being played upon them by John-as-Johnny, and that is the first sense that something is badly wrong within the Spence estate.
Things quickly turn serious as the true depths of Johnny’s debauchery become clear. This is really the heart of the movie: John discovering that he is a scapegoat for wrongs which he can scarcely imagine, much less make up for. Everyone connected with this film understands that the audience is going to expect the Spences to warm up to John-as-Johnny, so they put maximum effort into selling us on how difficult the process is and how much John needs to earn it.
In particular, the fate of an offscreen character named Alice is a centerpiece of the whole Spence story. As with the fate of Rebecca in Rebecca, Alice’s story is just a little too complicated to tell in a flashback, so the audience is required to pay attention to the various implied statements about her, which are eventually tied together by a monologue from Johnny Spence’s sister (Jodhi May). Even then, there are a few parts of Alice’s story which are left to the audience’s imagination, causing this to be a film which rewards viewers for paying attention during its runtime and thinking about it afterward.
There are some thriller-type elements to The Scapegoat, in that anyone who has ever seen a thriller will expect Johnny Spence to return and cause serious problems in so doing. However, those elements are brief and perfunctory compared to John’s attempts to understand the challenge of having a true evil such as Johnny Spence in a family. In the same way that the Moon affects the tides on Earth, Johnny has warped the emotions of everyone in his family, and poisoned the house down to its foundation. All of the actors playing the various Spences are adept at playing this, but especially Alice Orr-Ewing as Johnny’s wife. Her performance understands how a husband can so thoroughly break the spirit of his wife not through violence or even raising his voice, but simply through neglect and silent cruelty.
The biggest difference between the 2012 version of The Scapegoat and the earlier film adaptation (as well as the novel both are adapted from) is that the current film is set in 1952, just prior to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. For most of the movie it seems like there is no payoff for this except for historical detail in the background, but at the very end a pair of dynamite scenes play off of the idea that young Elizabeth must step into a role she is unprepared for in much the same way that John does. In one sense she is a scapegoat also, to be blamed for long-standing ills in her house over which she had no control while leaving the actual business of running her house to others in Parliament. However, like John her role need not be merely a figurehead or a fake, for she has the power and influence to cure those ills if she can put in the empathy and work. I had already been impressed with The Scapegoat, but those last two scenes raised the picture to a whole other level.
Reviewed by Mark Young
As of this writing, The Scapegoat is available on Netflix Watch Instantly.