Ruth Ellis, barmaid, the last woman hanged in England, 1955
David Blakely, race car driver
DANCE WITH A STRANGER A-
Great Britain (102 mi) 1985 d: Mike Newell
If you marry her, she’ll drive you down to her level as she’s incapable of rising to yours. —Carole Findlater (Jane Bertish)
I keep hoping that you’ll change, but you never do. —Ruth Ellis (Miranda Richardson)
A blisteringly intense examination of class differences, where on July 13, 1955, Ruth Ellis became the last woman to be executed in England, hanged for what can only be considered a crime of passion, as she readily admitted her guilt, so this was never a case of guilt or innocence, where her public crucifixion in the press was largely due to the prevailing attitudes of the times which condemned and disapproved of her lower class circumstances. Apparently, they couldn’t hang her fast enough, as the trial started June 20, 1955, and she was hanged July 13th, a mere three weeks later. Her real crime, according to the press and much of British society, was attempting to enter a higher class level of society for which she was considered unsuitable and deemed unfit. Her controversial execution led to a tidal wave of public outrage which eventually led to the abolition of capital punishment. Director Mike Newell was noted as a television director, where this stylishly powerful earlier period piece remains his best effort. It marked the debut of British actress Miranda Richardson in the role of Ruth, a powerful presence as a Jean Harlow-style platinum blond who simply walks away with the picture, scintillating throughout, perhaps reminiscent of Fassbinder’s spellbinding portrayal of women in THE STATIONMASTER’S WIFE (BOLWEISER) (1977), THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN (1979), or LOLA (1981), each using a different lead actress, or the earlier Bette Davis rendition of the film OF HUMAN BONDAGE (1934), a scathingly bleak and unpleasant slide into the lower depths of society. The tough script by Shelagh Delaney, who won an Academy Award for A TASTE OF HONEY (1961), is a surprisingly gritty and complex psychological examination of her circumstances, feeling authentic throughout, without a false note, where Richardson’s uncompromising portrayal is a revelation, seemingly driven by primal forces, where her shrill tone of near manic hysteria is balanced by her beauty and sirenesque sensuality, definitely a man pleaser, where once she’s got her hands on you, she doesn’t easily let go. The film explores the corrosive power of sexual attraction as possession, where you’d have to go to Ôshima’s IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES (1976) to find a couple that goes to greater extremes. Ruth Ellis is a Soho nightclub barmaid in London, where she’s part manager and lives with her 11-year old son Andy (Matthew Carroll) upstairs on relatively meager earnings. She’s used to making the rounds, dancing with customers, and encouraging men to order plenty of overpriced drinks, where her familiarity with the opposite sex belies her cynical sense of cunning and manipulation, where men are objects to be used, not enjoyed.
The club is frequented by London’s financially elite when they’re out slumming in Soho, looking for available girls, which is how Ruth meets David Blakely (Rupert Everett), a superficially shallow yet ridiculously handsome man who also happens to be an upper class playboy, a moody, self-absorbed alcoholic who envisions himself racing at LeMans, brought there by another race car aficionado, Desmond (Ian Holm). While David’s drinking doesn’t exactly enhance his racing skills, his roving eye for the ladies is perhaps his real skill, as he already has a girlfriend (later his fiancé) that is more along the lines of the kind of girl you bring home to mother. However, within moments of seeing each other, David instantly hits on Ruth, who is willing to overlook all the immediately recognizable, disreputable attributes, as despite his class arrogance and obvious drunkenness, the guy is easy on the eyes, thinking perhaps he can be her wild card out of poverty and lead her to a better life. The two begin a scandalously torrid affair, where all his friends constantly remind him of his sense of privilege, where this girl simply doesn’t fit, making her the butt of all their jokes, which is why Ruth despises them all, and hates David when he doesn’t stick up for her. But that’s not going to happen, as David is simply incapable of thinking about anyone other than himself, arriving at her door at all hours of the day or night expecting immediate attention, completely disregarding her son, or anything else for that matter. Fast cars, booze, and women is all he cares about, but he’s hooked on Ruth, as she routinely drops everything to be with him, where their love/hate relationship, often exaggerated in movies, couldn’t be more believable, often parading other women in front of her, constantly whining about the wretched state of their miserable lives, but going to bed together apparently solves everything. During several of the arguments, where physical abuse gets involved, Desmond steps in, as he’s madly in love with her as well, but uses his deep pockets as a potent weapon, offering her whatever she needs, which is really manipulative code for that’s what he’d like her to provide him. Nonetheless, as Ruth consistently leaves Andy alone, a heartbreakingly sad aspect of the picture, Desmond becomes a surrogate father figure, as there’s literally no one else filling the void.
Richardson is simply astonishing in a gut-wrenching performance, while Everett plays an equally damaged soul. The movie becomes an ongoing display of character flaws, as both Ruth and David are viciously selfish individuals, where there’s little sympathy for either one, where David is used to just taking and getting whatever he wants, irrespective of the consequences, while Desmond is more of a socially repressed weakling, who never acts on impulse, but is all about manner and routine, believing what Ruth needs is some stability and consistency in her life, trying to provide a safe haven for Ruth and Andy, hoping to possess her, but Ruth quickly betrays him, perhaps best expressed in an exquisitely beautiful shot in the London fog, where horses are being led down the street by lamps lit by fire, where the scene is reminiscent of Jack the Ripper, as the two inseparable lovers retreat to a dark alleyway and have sex like dogs on the street, not even bothering with any hint of respectability. These acts of desperation only grow worse, where out of considerable social pressure David spends time with a fiancé from his own social class and stops seeing Ruth, which literally drives her mad with jealousy. She makes inappropriate appearances in his social circles with disastrous results, where in their eyes she is making a fool of herself, but in her eyes she is fighting to hold onto what’s hers. Beautifully shot by Peter Hannan, where his overly saturated colors of the nearby countryside are a sumptuous relief from the claustrophobic and shadowy world in London, a near colorless existence filled with an air of melancholic bleakness, where Ruth can be seen singing the title song at the club without a hint of expression on her face, where she’s a lifeless imitation of the lively and confident woman that opened the film Dance with a Stranger - Miranda Richardson - YouTube (1:27). Oblique angles often frame the shot, while mirrors are prominently featured, perhaps reflecting the interchanging role between them in the escalating psychological obsession, a pitiful degradation of the human spirit, where the performances of both appear tortuously tragic, often expressed by the harrowing saxophone lead from the moody period score of Richard Hartley, where Ruth is so damaged that the only kind of man she can respect is the kind that continually abuses her. In a world of dangerous impulses, it’s the psychological imbalances that are continually left unattended, resulting in one of the most hauntingly cruel depictions of human tragedy.