I quite liked this little TV movie. I think the key to my enjoyment of it was that I have never seen the 1939 Hitchcock version of this same story. It’s best not to compare anything to a Hitchcock film. The film aired on PBS in August to little fanfare, but I thought it was fairly good.
The movie revolves around Iris Carr, a free-spirited independent young woman on holiday in Croatia. She’s played by Tuppence Middleton (no relation to Pippa & Kate). Iris leaves behind her lecherous friends and catches a train back toward home (England). A fellow Englishwoman, Miss. Froy befriends her at the beginning of the trip. Iris goes to sleep, and when she wakes up, Miss. Froy has vanished. The others in her compartment insist that there never was an Englishwoman.
If this is sounding familiar, it might be because of the Jodie Foster movie, Flightplan. I never actually saw that movie, but from the trailers I surmised that though the plot is virtually identical, it’s her daughter that disappears and not a stranger. Trying to convince a woman her own daughter doesn’t exist is a bit far-fetched. But a stranger?
I once sat next to a man on an overnight bus from London to Edinburgh. He slept for the first few hours. When the bus stopped at a gas station and we all got out to use the ‘loo’ or get some snacks, he didn’t come back to his seat. I watched them close the doors, thinking maybe I should say something. His hat was still there on the seat. I’m glad I didn’t say something, because I spotted him later, sitting in a different seat. But, the point is, I couldn’t really have picked him out of a lineup if anyone had needed me to. Dark hair…male…white-ish? Sleepy. That would narrow things down for the police.
So to think of meeting a stranger for a few minutes only, and then being so assured of who and what she was, despite contradictions from impartial observers…anyone would doubt what they saw.
The frustrating thing about this story is that we, the audience, of course know that she is real. We see her with Iris, of course, but we also know that several of the people claiming she didn’t exist are lying. And we see why they are lying. They’re all English, and they’re all lying because they don’t want to be inconvenienced by telling the truth. A couple on an illicit weekend (he’s married) don’t want it to get out that they were holidaying together. Scandal. A vicar and his wife need to get home to their son, who they’ve learned is sick with Spanish Flu (you’ll remember Spanish flu from its determination to kill everyone on Downton Abbey). Then there are two old biddies who are busy passing judgment on Iris for being (what they view as) a disreputable lady, rather than helping her look for the woman. We see lots of English people, all of whom refuse to be inconvenienced. They know someone may be missing, and they lie to Iris’s face about it. Terrible.
There’s even a condescending Oxford professor who I could not hate more. If he was a doctor, I could easily imagine him as the husband from The Yellow Wallpaper. He’s the first to suggest that Iris may need to be committed for ‘observation’. A doctor on the train, closely allied with the Croatian family Iris believes is responsible for Miss Froy’s disappearance, whispers in everyone’s ear about how Iris might be taken care of. Drugged and shipped off to an asylum. This is the bad guy saying this–but it’s also the ‘good guys’ saying this. The Oxford professor. The love interest!
Let’s talk about the love interest. Tom Hughes (from Cemetery Junction and Silk) plays Max Hare, a young man who agrees to help Iris for the obvious reason that she’s quite beautiful. She needs his help because she doesn’t speak the language(s) of the region. The professor is his professor. Max has just met Iris, so he’s understandably unsure of whether to believe her. She is sure of herself, but she acts very flighty, and everyone else contradicts her statements. Max believes her because he’s young and she’s beautiful and he wants to help her. But…his belief wavers at critical points. Talked into calming her by the professor and the doctor, he slips her a sedative. Uses her trust in him to give her drugs, believes he’s acting in her best interest. Not his best moment.
There are some really interesting themes in this story. It definitely makes a fairly obvious comment about the English and their morality–though it is important to note that nearly all of the people who kept quiet in the beginning, tell the truth in time to help. The story is also pretty xenophobic, with the Slavic Baroness as the villain of the piece, and some institutional corruption thrown in to make you really want to stay in England for the rest of your life and never venture onto that savage continent. But the thing that bothered me most about it was the threat of committing Iris. This was a really big problem for many upper-class women. Read some 19th-century literature and you’ll see it everywhere. Lady Audley’s Secret, The Woman in White. Ladies who make trouble for their families, their husbands, or anyone in authority, are declared mentally unstable and shipped off to an asylum for the rest of their days. Iris was particularly vulnerable, because she has no family and no advocates.
I really like Iris, actually. She’s independent to a fault, freely admits her own bad qualities (she’s selfish and impatient). But at the moment when she can do something important, right a potential wrong, she doesn’t give up. Of course, I am thoroughly irritated by the fact that she doesn’t see any need to speak other languages, and doesn’t understand why more foreigners don’t speak English. Proves that it’s not just Americans who are known to think that way, however.
Problems exist with this TV movie, independent of any comparison to Hitchcock. Some of the threads of the story are never picked up or explained. Red herrings are far more useful when they actually have an explanation in the end. Iris hears shots fired when she’s walking around her hotel, at the very beginning of the story. Her train ticket reservation is gone, and she has to bribe the attendant to get on the train. Someone hits her on the head when she’s waiting on the platform, and she nearly misses the train. There are bodies near the track. It’s all very eery, and works to give the audience many possible theories on whodunnit, but then those things are never explained later on. I like a mystery that connects all of the dots, so that you don’t feel quite so much like you were manipulated.
That being said, I thought the acting was good and the set was really quite beautiful. The train gave a really claustrophobic feeling to the action, and the vague location in foreign lands made Iris seem more lonely and isolated from her own society and those likely to help and believe her. Obviously the movie takes place in the first half of last century, but it still works. Everyone who’s traveled somewhere they don’t speak the language has had moments of that same fear. The difficulty of making oneself believed, and the feeling that this would never happen if you were home where you belong. I have a personal story about getting lost with no money in Croatia in the middle of a rainstorm. But that’s a story for a different blog.