Sometimes a film "based on a
true story" can be quite good, but I've found that all too often
they're like Cause Celebre: tired and ultimately rather
lifeless stories that seem to have lost track of their narrative
impulse. The subject matter of this film may have set the headlines
of 1935 England on fire, but the material doesn't hold up to its
transition from gossip to story.
Helen Mirren plays Alma Rattenbury,
a middle-aged housewife who gets drawn into a love affair with her
18-year-old chauffeur, George Bowman. When her ailing husband is
found bludgeoned to death, Alma confesses, but despite this, and
despite the storm of horrified public opinion that sweeps the nation,
her attorney (David Suchet) is committed to saving her life.
The film is structured so that it
alternates between the "present-day" action of Alma's
trial, and extended flashbacks that show the action leading up to
that point. As we hear the testimony of the various people involved
in the trial, then, we also see how Alma and George begin their
affair and how things start to go wrong. It's a structure that's
often quite effective, but here it doesn't really work, mainly
because there's no real dramatic tension to the film. The way the
events are developed, it seems at first that we're going to get an
interesting mystery: what really happened that day? But the
filmmakers (constrained by the real-life facts, for one thing) chose
to go with a straightforward and ultimately rather dull revelation,
if you can call it that. This is no mystery.
I can see that the emphasis is being
placed on the emotional life of the characters, but again the film
falls flat on this front as well. I really didn't find any of the
characters to be particularly interesting; rather than liking,
disliking, or feeling involved with any of them, I just didn't care
one way or the other about them. None of the relationships seemed
convincing, either, especially not that of Alma and George;
considering that theirs is the fundamental relationship of the film,
this is a major failing.
Cause Celebre was originally
a radio play and then a stage play before making its way to the small
screen in 1987, and its roots are clearly evident. The film as a
whole has a staged, rather static feel to it, and the portions of the
film that take place away from the constrained set of the courtroom
feel awkward and clichéd. Some scenes feel like they were put
in simply as filler, rather than as part of a functioning narrative;
for instance, the scene in which George finds (and is fascinated by)
some of Alma's underwear feels like it was filmed and then checked
off a list.
Given how flat the overall film
feels, the downbeat ending, rather than feeling tragic or emotionally
powerful, simply underscores the feeling of "what a waste of
time." Despite the presence of some solid British actors, Cause
Celebre is a forgettable and rather pointless exercise.
This made-for-television movie
appears in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Considering that it's
from 1987, it looks more or less OK, but that's about it. The print
looks clean, with no flaws or obvious problems, but contrast is poor.
Colors tend to be muted and rather wan.
The Dolby 2.0 track is on a par with
the video transfer. It's generally clear and clean, but also
consistently flat-sounding. I also noticed occasional lip-synching
This no-frills DVD has no special
features at all.
Cause Celebre does nothing to
further the cause of "based on a true story" plotlines.
Based on the 1935 case involving a December-May romance between a
housewife and her chauffeur, and the subsequent murder of her aging
husband, Cause Celebre may have worked better in its earlier
incarnation as a stage play than it does in this rather stilted
made-for-TV version. If you can become emotionally connected to the
character of Alma (Helen Mirren), there might be some merit to the
film, but I found all the characters to be unconvincing and, worse,
uninteresting. Skip it.