If you like Matthew Rhys as the Americanized KGB agent in
FX’s terrific 80’s spy series The
Americans, and think he might be even more dashing with his natural-born
British accent, then Netflix is streaming a film for you. In The
Scapegoat, set in 1952 and based on a Daphne du Maurier story, he plays the
dual role of John Standard and Johnny Spence, one a recently laid-off teacher
of Greek, the other his lookalike, the ne’er-do-well son of a once-rich
factory-owning family now struggling to stay afloat. Written and directed by
Charles Sturridge (a director of the classic Brideshead Revisited), with EiIeen Atkins ideally cast as the
family’s imperious, morphine-addicted matriarch, The Scapegoat is darkly delightful, with swapped identities, intrigue,
murder, and a great pile of an aristocratic house to rival Brideshead. Made for ITV and shown on television in Britain,
(and on the Ovation network here) it plays like an exceptional installment of
Masterpiece Mystery, except it’s not.
When Standard leaves the boys’ school that no longer needs
him, he wanders into a pub where he meets a stranger who looks exactly like
him, but who wears far more expensive clothes. The
Parent Trap in a pub? Not at all. More like 1950’s identity theft. The men
spend the night drinking to their weird coincidence, and the next morning
Standard wakes in his room to find his
clothes, wallet and identity gone. The real Spence has fled, leaving behind his
car and chauffeur to take the dazed Standard to the family home.
Standard looks so identical to Spence that his own wife and
siblings don’t see the difference — just go with it, this is a du Maurier story.
As Standard plays along, Rhys is great at showing us the confusion in his eyes,
just enough to let us know what he’s thinking without letting on to the thoroughly
up. The factory is in danger of going under; Johnny is having an affair with
his brother’s demanding wife (Sheridan Smith, with Rhys in the photo above) while neglecting his own docile
wife (Alice Orr-Ewing) and their young daughter, improbably nicknamed Piglet; his
lesbian sister (Jodhi May) hates him for reasons we will eventually discover.
The entire house seems to be held together by their servant, Charlotte (Phoebe
Nicholls, who played Cordelia in Brideshead and married her director,
Sturridge, and gave birth to their son, the recently Tony-nominated actor Tom
Sturridge, but that’s another story). Charlotte’s black dress and the
stony-faced way she orders the family around are a knowing tribute to Mrs. Danvers
in Hitchcock’s version of that other du Maurier story, Rebecca.
There is, of course, a Hitchcockian gloss to all this, and a lot of
period charm. The family is baffled by their first-ever television, which
they’ve bought to watch the Coronation ceremony of Queen Elizabeth II.
When the evil Johnny returns, Rhys displays the malice in his eyes until we get to a resolution
that may not be utterly surprising but is very satisfying anyway.
which will also come out on DVD in August, isn’t a major film, but it would be
too bad if this blithe entertaining mystery went completely under the radar. Although
it is entirely different in tone from
the tense Gillian Anderson series The Fall, it is another British find that Netflix has made easy to see.
Here’s a trailer, but be warned: it gives away quite a lot.