Dance With a Stranger (1985)

“I’ve brought us to a den of vice.”

Ruth Ellis was the last woman to be hanged in Britain. The film Dance With a Stranger explores the background of the infamous crime and offers a fascinating–although at times grim–glimpse into the lives of Ruth Ellis and David Blakeley.

It’s the 1950s in Britain, and Ruth Ellis (Miranda Richardson in an amazing performance) works at a small London club. In essence it’s a “glorified brothel” with a handful of dance hostesses and a large male clientele. Ruth manages the club and lives in a flat upstairs with her son, Andy (Matthew Carroll). She’s in her twenties and has several broken relationships in her past when racecar driver, David Blakeley (Rupert Everett) drifts into the club one evening. Ruth’s long time admirer Desmond Coussen (Ian Holm) who nurses a hopeless crush on the brittle, hard club hostess watches with despair as Blakeley worms his way into Ruth’s life. Desmond is one of those decent types who sit patiently on the sidelines hoping that they’ll be noticed for their stellar qualities. His character–responsible, dependable, and solid is in direct contrast to the petulant, volatile David. At first, Ruth assesses Blakeley as an obnoxious upper-class troublemaker, but there’s a chemistry between them, and soon they begin a relationship.

The film plots the course of this ill-starred affair through its violent history of power struggles and inter-dependency. The class divisions are well illustrated with some wonderful scenes as Ruth tries to enter David’s world, and the film shows that friends on both sides saw the relationship as destructive and dangerous. But there’s a horrible fascination between Ruth and Blakeley, and attempts to break up just seem to bind them together.

The film does an excellent job of sticking to the facts of the case while also hinting at issues that emerged long after the case was ‘closed.’ As a film based on a true story, director Mike Newell effectively recreates the pathology of this doomed relationship. If you’re interested in reading more about the story of Ruth Ellis, there are several books available (including one written by her daughter), and the crime library site also contains a great deal of information. Watch for one scene that foreshadows Ruth’s fate as she ascends a staircase. The use of shadow here is absolutely perfect.

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