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 problems.
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.