Cause Celebre (1987)

“Do you remember dancing around half-dressed trying to kiss several of the policemen?”

The made-for-British-television film Cause Celebre is based on a real-life murder case that occurred in Britain in the 1930s. When the film begins, times are hard, and strapping 18-year-old George Bowman (David Morrissey) applies for the job of houseboy with the middle class Rattenbury family. Although the Rattenburys intended to employ a boy of school age, Bowman gets the job at the meager wage of one pound a week.

Middle aged Alma Rattenbury (Helen Mirren) is married to the elderly Francis Rattenbury (Harry Andrews). Affectionately known as ‘Rats’, he’s her third husband, and she has two boys–the younger son is the product of their union. Rats and Alma sleep apart in separate rooms these days, and while they have a friendly relationship, it’s based on Alma placating Rats when he’s in a bad mood, or when she needs to wheedle money out of him. She’s portrayed as lonely and emotionally fragile. According to her loyal, protective maid Irene (Norma West), Alma is also extremely vulnerable. It doesn’t take long before Alma and Bowman are embroiled in a passionate affair right under Alma’s husband’s nose.

The film begins with Alma’s arraignment for her husband’s murder, and then the film goes 8 months back in time to the day when Bowman first arrives at the Rattenbury home. The plot covers the torrid affair between Alma and her much younger lover, and approximately half of the film covers the sensational trial and the murky details surrounding the crime. Some of the best scenes occur when lawyers square off in a changing room prior to the commencement of the trial. It’s clear that all sides–the prosecution and the defense–have scripted certain roles for Alma and Bowman. Pilloried by the press, Alma is viewed and condemned as a femme fatale by the public. She’s committed the unpardonable sin of smashing societal norms with her affair with a much younger man who is outside her class. The murder of Mr. Rattenbury is subordinated to the notorious, sensational aspects of the passionate love affair.

Helen Mirren is superb–as always–as Alma, a sad, lonely woman with a hint of giddiness. She appeals to Bowman who claims to love her madly. Bowman is a rather dark character who seems to merge his fascination with cinema with disastrous flights of romanticism. Fans of British television should enjoy this film–although it’s not really a mystery to be unraveled in the traditional sense. From director John Gorrie.

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