“Have you never felt that perhaps Ralph isn’t all he seems to be? “
This British made-for-television, 6 part mini-series logging in at just over 5 hours focuses on the criminal career of The Charmer–Ralph Gorse, conman, blackmailer, seducer, embezzler, and killer. The story begins in the 1930s, and blond, good-looking suave Ralph (Nigel Havers) drifts into a nice quiet, upper middle class neighbourhood. Here he ingratiates himself into the good graces of snobby middle-aged widow Joan Plumleigh-Bruce (Rosemary Leach) while alienating her jealous, long-time beau, Donald Stimpson (Bernard Hepton). Ralph may flatter Joan with his romantic little tributes, but he certainly doesn’t fool Donald. Although Donald gnashes his teeth with pent-up frustration and jealousy, he can’t really put his finger on exactly why he loathes Ralph. The eminently sensible Donald suspects, rightly, that there’s something terribly wrong with Ralph, but Joan sweeps away all of Donald’s skepticism by chalking it up to jealousy. Ralph eventually does reveal his true colours, and too late, Donald realizes exactly what he’s after. Donald vows revenge, and he patiently and persistently tracks his enemy.
Ralph’s sociopathic, criminal, and narcissistic nature is developed and revealed gradually over the course of these 6 episodes. Leaving disaster in his wake, Ralph’s Achilles’ heel remains his need to constantly place himself in the upper classes where he feels he rightly belongs. A born shape shifter, Ralph can mingle with the middle classes and fool them quite adequately with lies about his past, but he cannot fool the upper classes. He drifts into the lives of the Bennett family with disastrous consequences, but a middle class life of employment and a modest home hems him in causing him almost to panic at its mediocrity.
The episodes track Ralph’s career emphasizing that the advent of WWII allows him to drop in and out of society while the world is in chaos. The Charmer is essentially a study of one man’s character, and the film succeeds admirably in placing Ralph into situations from which he extricates himself. Using lonely women to feather his existence, Ralph maintains an on-an-off relationship with his upper-class ideal, the spoiled, privileged and superficial Clarice Mannors (Fiona Fullerton). Addicted to leisure and affluence, Ralph inevitably cannot maintain a low profile–even when it’s essential to do so. The characterizations are remarkably strong–everyone finds Joan Plumleigh-Bruce obnoxious–everyone–except her long-suffering beau, Stimpson. Stimpson is a marvelously understated character, so easy to overlook, but so determined to destroy Gorse. Fans of British television should enjoy this entertaining film based on the novel Mr. Stimpson and Mr. Gorse by Patrick Hamilton–although some patience may be required with the programme’s pacing.