This intriguing British TV film has been adapted from a novel by Daphne du Maurier written in 1957. The story takes place in 1952 when all of Britain was abuzz because of the upcoming Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Although the tale is implausible, the viewer is nevertheless caught up in the unusual plot, fixated on the wry events that take place at a high level of speed.
Daphne du Maurier, Author of "The Scapegoat" - Wikimedia
The story opens in a Boys’ Private School in England where teacher John Standing (played by Matthew Rhys) has just learned that his job teaching Greek to young boys is no longer relevant and he will be replaced by a teacher of French. He reacts normally by visiting a bar to have a few drinks. While there, the bartender hands him some change, mistaking him for another customer, John Spence. When John Standing visits the Men’s Room, he is confronted by his doppelganger, that is, a man who looks exactly like himself. They return to the bar and order more drinks, awestruck at the remarkable resemblance they have to each other.
Although the two characters are mirror images of each other, their personalities are quite different. John Standing comes across as honest and helpful, while John Spence displays a deceitful, selfish image. This allows the viewer to avoid being confused when one or the other shows up on the screen. Their mannerisms, their interactions, and their persona all convey to the audience just who has appeared before them. Matthew Rhys does a superb job of expressing which character he is portraying.
Spence invites John to spend the night in his nearby hotel room since he is too intoxicated to make his way home. When John awakes in the morning, Spence has left, taking with him John’s wallet and his clothes. Soon, a chauffeur arrives to take John (thinking he is John Spence) back to his mansion in the country. John tries to protest, but the chauffeur assumes that John’s condition has had a bad effect on him, and moves him along to the Spence estate.
There, John learns that Spence’s wife, sister, brother-in-law, young daughter, even a mistress, cannot discern that he is not John Spence. He is forced to take on this new identity, as no explanation would seem satisfactory. He is much intrigued by what he learns just by keeping his mouth shut. When asked if he (Spence) was able to get the contract with a major client signed, he says yes hesitantly, which causes the household and their glass company to rejoice and to celebrate. Supposedly, the signed contract will insure that the failing company will be able to meet its payroll and to prosper.
Matthew Rhys - Wikimedia
The viewer becomes privy to the idiosyncrasies of all of the family members who accept John without delving too deeply. Only his young daughter has mentioned to the household maid that her father has a different smell. The family dog is smart enough to know that the newcomer is not his master, and growls at him. Even that incident does not raise any suspicions. Apparently Spence had taken on his brother Paul’s wife Nina as a mistress. She too finds her lover to be much gentler than at any previous encounter.
The only possible funding source for the failing glass company is Spence’s wife Frances. Her father had set up a trust fund for her with the stipulation that she produce a male heir. So far, Spence and Frances have only their daughter, known as Piglet, as an heir. The other stipulation is that Spence would be the recipient of the trust fund if Frances preceded him in death. What a temptation to a man whose moral conduct is already questionable.
The household has opened the estate to a shooting, where a large group of friends will join the family in the outing, which is an annual event. When all in the house are outside enjoying the shoot, John Spence surreptitiously returns and visits his wife, asleep in their bedroom, and again implausibly talks her into taking some pills.
How can this all end? John Standing has learned to love everyone in the family, where John Spence cannot abide any member of this same household. Daphne du Maurier has created a predicament that seems to have no solution. Yet, a happy family, less some members, is viewed in the final scene observing the Queen’s Coronation on their newly-purchased television set.
Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II - Wikimedia
An earlier adaptation was produced in 1959 starring Alec Guinness and Bette Davis, the setting at that time being France. It is unclear whether either of these versions kept to the author’s script in coming up with an ending.