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Andrew Scott in The Scapegoat – Review * 11 September 2012

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An unusual tale of mistaken identity based upon the novel by Daphne de Maurier, The Scapegoat stars Matthew Rhys as a man who encounters his doppelganger and unwillingly trades places with him, leading to a completely different life with his double's family, including Andrew Scott, Eileen Atkins, Sheridan Smith and Jodhi May.  The film was first broadcast on Sunday September 9 2012, and is now available on DVD in the UK.

It's a very tricky thing to attempt to tell a story whose very beginning could be construed as ridiculous if badly handled, but the new adaptation of The Scapegoat manages this trick with relative ease, despite a few close shaves. Much of the success of the production can be laid at the feet of the cast, all bringing a gravity to proceedings that enable the film to stay on the right side of absurdity.

Matthew Rhys plays the dual roles of John Standing (the well-meaning good one) and Johnny Spence (The caddish bad one) with a suitable layer of respective bewilderment and devilishness. Of the two, John has the longest screen time in the film, and so we follow his journey from befuddlement at his sudden insertion into this ongoing social situation, through to his growing attachment to his double's wife, brother, mother, sister in law, and precocious daughter that enable him to begin to right wrongs with all concerned. The actual differences between the two men are very slight, mostly told through patterns of behaviour and the clothes they wear, but Matthew is able to communicate them both well - despite the removal of mechanisms from the book that enable us to tell them apart, such as nationality and a burnt hand, we're never in any doubt which man we're listening to at any time, and that is a testament to Matthew's skill as an actor.  

Eileen Atkins is second billed in the film, and as Spence's matriarchal yet bed ridden mother, brings a degree of pith and wit to proceedings. The presence of this cuckoo like version her son spurs her to action later in the film, a mark of the impact Standing has upon the family. Below Atkins lies a group of women that Spence has clearly manipulated beyond reproach. Sheridan Smith takes the most screen time of the three as Spence's sister in law Nina, exuding ferocious sexuality but also a degree of vulnerability. Alice Orr-Wing is Spence's wife Frances, clearly damaged and manipulated by her husband to a frightening degree, but rescued by the arrival of John Standing. Add Sylvie Testud as Spence's French mistress in town, and Phoebe Nicholls as the highly observant family housekeeper, and you begin to get a sense of the complexity of the situation Standing finds himself in, and that's not even considering the fact that his doppelganger has spent his life constantly bullying his sister Blanche, played by Jodhi May, and has effectively cuckolded his own brother, played by Andrew Scott.

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While perhaps slightly relegated to the background at times as part of the ensemble, Andrew brings a subtle layer of frustration to his role as Paul Spence, a man in the shadow of his sibling. Unknowingly betrayed by his real brother, one of the strengths of the film is the aforementioned righting of wrongs by John Standing, and in the case of Paul the result is a growing brotherly bond between the two. Andrew works well with the material he has, making Paul a quiet man who is gradually brought out of his shell through simple kindness from John, only hinting at the resentment that existed previously which is in turn extinguished as events proceed.

 The cast are thus beyond reproach, but we have to acknowledge that some rather dramatic changes have been made from de Maurier's original story, many of which refit the adaptation significantly and in turn change the direction of proceedings. Much of what is jettisoned are layers of introspection, darkness, and grit that emerged from the time period, and most of that is due to the change in location from France to Britain - in the novel the Spence family are actually the le Comte's, a family of French aristocrats, and John's double is instead Jean, who is revealed to have executed collaborators during the Second World War. The change in venue streamlines the film, but also removes much of a sense of time period - here instead we have the Coronation of 1952 as a touchstone, but apart from the opening and close of the piece much of the era itself feels lost - it could appear to be late Edwardian at times. Also missing from the book is John intentionally burning his hand in a fire to avoid the shooting party - an act which of course adds a physical distinction between the two men - and major changes to the ending of the story, which effectively produce the complete opposite of events from the source material.

All of this aside, it's best to look at The Scapegoat as an actor's piece rather than a narrative one. If you can suspend your disbelief at the initial set up to the story - one that arguably works better in literature, where your mind's eye is the only vision you can see events with - you'll find a film filled with strong performances that manage to really bring the piece to life. By the close, there is a sense that the film could really have benefitted from an extended running time so we could come to know these characters even better, and that's not something we say often. 

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The Scapegoat is available on Region 2 encoded DVD in the UK. You can order the DVD from Amazon UK here. For International Delivery Information from Amazon UK, check here. Please note you will need a Region 2 or multi-region enabled player to view the disc. We recommend checking www.google.com with your player model number to check options for region unlocking.