Dance With A Stranger

Dance With A Stranger (1985) dir. Mike Newell writ. Shelagh Delaney cine. Peter Hannan music Richard Hartley star. Miranda Richardson (Ruth Ellis), Rupert Everett (David Blakely), Ian Holm (Desmond Cussen), Joanne Whalley, Tom Chadbon, Stratford Johns, Mathew Carroll

Lawrence Russell

What is passion? A perfect fit between a sadist and a masochist? Human beings appear to be lost somewhere between the solar codes of their animal origins and the religious rituals of their toilet training. Love is a tragedy, a disease whose symptoms are sex and violence. It begins in lust, ends in death. So go the politics of Dance With A Stranger.

If anyone ever deserved to die from a lover's bullet, it would have to be David Blakely, the swinish young prat who drives racing cars for a living and drinks as a profession. He's a typical upper class wastrel whose self-hatred is symptomatic of aristocratic loneliness and is measured by speed and sexual violence. If Ruth Ellis hadn't come into his life, no doubt Blakely would've brutalized a few prostitutes and died in a car wreck, as his destiny is another form of suicide.

The Ruth Ellis story is essentially a sex-triangle. The film opens with Blakely and a few drunken friends at an after-hours club somewhere in London. He's been led here by Desmond Cussen, a working-class man who is also a member of the British Automobile Racing Association, and an admirer of Ruth. While it isn't stated, you get the impression that Cussen is a wealthy automobile dealer. He's the opposite of Blakely -- shrewd, calm, plain, a self-made man. He begins as a go-between, ends as another victim of the class war this doomed romance obliquely represents.

Blakely: You've brought us to a den of vice, Desmond. These places are glorified brothels. (to Ruth behind the bar) And who are you?

Ruth: The glorified brothel keeper.

It's lust at first sight, and soon the urgent Blakely is on top of Ruth in her convenient suite above the club. Like the self-flagellants they are, their screwing is another attitudinal exercise in sarcasm, a sado-masochistic dialogue of attack and thrust:

Blakely: I love you.

Ruth: Everybody does. Why should you be different?

Blakely: Has Desmond ever slept in this bed with you?

Ruth: No... come to think of it, he must be the only man.

So the stage is set for an affair between animals, as their humanity and common sense is shed like dead skin as they slither into their fate. Soon it's a battlefield of grudge fucks, healing fucks, actions without a purpose, love without a future. Ruth accompanies Blakely to Silverstone, watches him race, watches him kiss his pedigreed fiance. Later she forces Desmond to take her to the Racing Association's annual ball where she watches Blakely drink and socialize with his clique, dance with his fiance. Is she stalking him... or is he stalking her? He has a key to her apartment, breaks in when he feels like it, always drunk and abusive, always acting by divine right. Her "key" to his "apartment" is Desmond, the patsy go-between in this tragic parody of the courtly love convention.

Blakely has no apartment. He sleeps in his garage with his racing car, "The Emperor", another doomed project, an ideal that echoes the failure of the British auto industry and his absurd romance. He takes The Emperor to Silverstone but it throws a rod, fails to complete the race. He has another chance, though -- the elite Bristol Racing team invite him to drive one of their cars in the Le Mans 24 hour race. Ruth sits in an empty cinema with her son watching the Pathe News montage of the race as an anonymous male sits watching her watch like a predator who can smell the heat.

What does Ruth see? She's a myopic who needs to wear glasses but knows she looks better without them. So her world is narrowed to the spectral band of smell and touch... and the sound of racing engines. She isn't artless -- she sings in her club, even if her song isn't much more than a tone poem, a talking blues for effect rather than design. Blakely arrives with his fiance, throws a tantrum, gets into a fight, gets Ruth fired. Later she trashes the club in a final act of despair and anguish, closing her theatre of desire.

They reconcile. Blakely drives her into the country in his Jag, shows her his ancestral home. She refuses to go in, recognizing that she will never be a Cinderella in this story. Blakely promises to take her son on an outing but fails to show... Ruth has Desmond drive her to the country village pub where she confronts Blakely in a humiliating scene of recrimination and denunciation. Blakely scuffles with Desmond outside. It appears to be over.

But Ruth is pregnant. Blakely is the father but he prefers to suspect Desmond, the loyal, ever-suffering understudy. In the most dramatic scene in the film, Blakely encounters Ruth in the London smog, has sex with her in an alley. They're like plague victims, the shrouding smog their passion, a disease for sentinels.

Ruth moves in with Desmond, who has a nice flat and pays for her son to attend boarding school. He also has his service revolver in a drawer. You see the revolver as Andy -- Ruth's son -- explores Desmond's study, opens the drawer, a Freudian pawn in a game he will never understand... so the detail is casual, the possibility vague. Blakely continues to visit Ruth, even in Desmond's flat.

Desmond: Are you sleeping with him?

Ruth: Yes.

Desmond: You're disgusting!

Nonetheless, the enslaved Desmond drives her to the street where Blakely parties with his friends. She sees him leave with a young woman. Ruth goes berserk, the police arrive, but Desmond spirits her away. But this isn't the end. One evening she waits for her lover outside a pub and shoots him as he emerges. She puts five bullets into him with Desmond's revolver... and thus, in 1955, becomes the last woman to be hung for murder in the U.K.

This time she's wearing her glasses.

Well-written, directed and edited, with a marvellous music score by Richard Hartley. The beautiful scaling runs of the saxophone are introduced as thrilling transitions, accurate emotional triggers for the deadly ecstasy of these doomed lovers. In terms of dramatic form and emotional engagement, it's a much better film than its 1958 American antecedent, I Want To Live!, Robert Wise's docu-drama about Barbara Graham who was also sentenced to death in 1955 for murder.

Both movies end with letters from the executed women. Barbara Graham's reveals nothing whereas Ruth Ellis's reveals everything: "I have forgiven David, I only wish I could've found it in my heart to have forgiven him when he was alive...."

©LR 85/99


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