Sunday, September 20, 2015

Neglected Gem #83: Paper Mask (1990)

Paul McGann and Amanda Donohoe in Paper Mask (1990).

The perceived arrogance and hubris of doctors, which is how so many patients see and are intimidated by them, is the inside dark joke in the tense and pleasingly twisty British thriller Paper Mask. Directed by veteran Christopher Morahan and written by John Collee, a doctor who adapted his own novel to the screen, the movie begins with a literal bang as Matthew Harris (Paul McGann), an amoral orderly in a London hospital, chances upon a fatal car accident outside his local pub. Sensing an opportunity, he steals the ID of the victim, a doctor from his own hospital named Simon Hennessey, and when he learns that Hennessey had just applied for a residency in a hospital in Bristol follows though and goes for the job which, astoundingly, he gets. The frightening conceit here is that merely perusing a few textbooks and observing some procedures where he works is enough for Matthew to fool anyone at his new job. It’s not as farfetched as it might sound since Paper Mask is careful to keep things real and smartly focused, which is what makes this "it could happen" tale so scary.

Admittedly, Paper Mask is a movie of its time – today there would be so many ways to do background checks and too many possibilities of uncovering a fraudster like Matthew through new technology that the plot would not parse as easily – but that doesn’t make it any less compelling. McGann anchors the movie in a role far removed from the hapless, put upon actor he essayed in Bruce Robinson’s 1987 witty cult hit Withnail & I. Watching him impersonate Hennessey and strut about as if he owned the hospital and then put on a gentler, kinder persona for Christine Taylor (Amanda Donohoe), the nice nurse who falls hard for him, makes for one of the more chilling film portrayals of a sociopath. (Donohoe was then a real find in movies like Castaway (1987), The Lair of the White Worm (1988) and The Rainbow (1989) where she starred opposite McGann, but currently is more of a TV and stage actress.) Other performances, including those of Frederick Treves as Harris’ elderly mentor who comes to regret his largesse towards the young man and Tom Wilkinson (Selma) as another doctor who crosses paths with Harris also stand out in a consistently well-acted film.

Collee’s screenplay is a deft mixture of believable suspense – the details wherein Harris’s subterfuge is threatened by exposure are utterly plausible – and underlying tragedy, with a bit of black humour thrown in for good measure. (The British are particularly good at juggling different creative balls like this.). Bad things do happen to good people in this movie but not to Harris himself, at least not in ways he can’t handle. In fact, its open-ended conclusion – moral ambiguity, again, is a British trait, one that, comparatively, only occasionally pops up in Hollywood movies – is appealing on so many levels, not least as an antidote to the prevalent myth that you reap what you sow. Only the film’s bland visual qualities – shot by Nat Crosby, it looks like a generic TV movie – detract somewhat from the whole. But in a genre, which so often falls apart under logical scrutiny, Paper Mask certainly holds up, even so many years later.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he has concluded a course entitled A Filmmaker/A Country. The course looked at various great filmmakers (Akira Kurosawa, Francesco Rosi, Jafar Panahi and others) who have come to represent their country, at home and abroad, simply because they evince a deep curiosity about what makes their homeland tick, in terms of its people, its history, and its interactions with outsiders and their influences. He will be teaching a course on documentary cinema at LIFE Institute in the fall.

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