RogerBW's Blog

Dance With a Stranger 02 December 2021

1985 drama/tragedy, dir. Mike Newell, Miranda Richardson, Rupert Everett: IMDb / allmovie. In 1955, Ruth Ellis just wants to run a nightclub and do a little prostitution on the side, but things have to get all complicated.

And of course she is that Ruth Ellis, famously the last woman to be hanged in Britain, and the film is about the events leading up to the murder of her boyfriend David. Which is a problem in two ways: on the one hand, if it hadn't ended in a murder, if they'd had a screaming fight instead, it would have been just like thousands of other stories and not at all worth making a film about. On the other, one can't help feeling that a film which started with the murder, and went on to the trial and discussion of contemporary attitudes to the death penalty, might have been more interesting.

But what we have is a look at Ruth and, I think, an attempt to show how this person could have ended up killing her lover. Except that we don't get the actual Ruth, and not just from lack of information; sure, we may not know what she said in private conversation, but we do know that rather than One Big Moment of Betrayal, as shown here, both of them had been sleeping with other people throughout their relationship. We also know that Ruth's son Andy was not living with her in London; he was with her mother, who's entirely missing here. So this isn't even an attempt to show how the actual person might have been thinking…

But this is what Shelagh Delaney (A Taste of Honey) wrote and Mike Newell directed: what Pauline Kael called "a kitchen-sink film noir", with everything grim and claustrophobic and smoke-stained because this is the 1950s and people in Britain are finally noticing that the good times they've been promised since the 1920s just aren't coming, so you might as well take your desperate fun where you can get it.

What saves this film for me is Miranda Richardson, just before her turn as Queenie in Blackadder II, thoroughly inhabiting the part as a cut-price Marilyn Monroe knockoff who needs to be hard as nails and almost manages to be. The lad who falls in love with a tart is an over-repeated story, but this time at least we get it from the tart's side, and indeed Ruth is shown as someone who's trying to be very slightly more than a common prostitute; yes, there's the chain of obsession, with Desmond (a splendid Ian Holm) wanting Ruth on any terms he can have and Ruth wanting David ditto, but I also got the impression that Desmond makes film-Ruth feel like a kept woman and with David she can at least briefly forget that.

But it's awfully slow at times; pick a moment in the middle of the film and ask "what does this scene specifically add to the story" or "why is it specifically at this point in the sequence of scenes", and you may come up blank. Part of that is a change in mindset: in 2021, I know what a standard abusive relationship looks like, I know the pattern of violence and kindness, and I don't need to have it laid out for me in detail (though Richardson's expression the first time David hits Ruth, that sense of completion because this is what a relationship is and that part of it just hadn't happened yet… damn, she's good.) But The Gift of Fear didn't come out until 1997 and before that these patterns weren't in the general topics of discussion, so like the toxic masculinity of Raging Bull they have to be laid out at length.

Not, in the end, a masterpiece, but well worth it for the acting.

Once more if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

Tags: film reviews

See also:
Raging Bull

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