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Dance With a Stranger (1984)

Courtesy of Goldcrest Films International Ltd

Main image of Dance With a Stranger (1984)
DirectorMike Newell
Production CompanyFirst Film Company
 National Film Finance Corporation
 Film Four International
 Goldcrest Films And Television
ProducerRoger Randall-Cutler
ScriptShelagh Delaney
PhotographyPeter Hannan

Cast: Miranda Richardson (Ruth Ellis); Rupert Everett (David Blakely); Ian Holm (Desmond Cussen); Matthew Carroll (Andy); Tom Chadbon (Anthony Findlater)

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Bar manager Ruth Ellis becomes embroiled in an abusive relationship with alcoholic womaniser, David Blakely. Ruth is so consumed by Blakely that she neglects her son Andy and torments her other suitor, Desmond. After losing her job, flat and unborn baby, Ruth loses her mind - and murders Blakely.

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Based on the true story of Ruth Ellis, the last woman hanged in Britain, Mike Newell's Dance With a Stranger (1985) concentrates on Ellis's (Richardson) short-lived relationship with motor-racing driver David Blakely (Rupert Everett), who she ultimately murders.

However the script's few mentions of her first abusive marriage help to explain Ellis's despair that "all men are the same". Even mild-mannered Desmond Cussens (Ian Holm) has demonstrated a vicious streak by the end of the film.

Several film noir techniques are used to enhance the film's melancholic bleakness. Characters emerge from shadows, and are often photographed from unusual angles. The lighting is usually subdued, making colours appear surreal. Ellis is frequently shown reflected in mirrors and, in one scene, through the lens of Desmond's camera.

Much is made of Ellis's inability to see - she constantly needs to put her glasses on, but refuses, out of vanity, to wear them all them around. Her blindness is a metaphor for her desire, which masks the reality of her situation. Ellis's son Andy (Matthew Carroll) is given the foresight that escapes his mother. Rifling through Desmond's flat for his Christmas presents, Andy finds a gun. During the final moments, we flash back to their seaside trip, when Andy became preoccupied with digging an enormous hole in the sand. In context, after the murder of Blakely, the hole resembles a grave.

The Ellis case increased pressure for the abolition of the death penalty and influenced the 1957 Homicide Act, which introduced the plea of 'diminished responsibility'. Dance With a Stranger makes for interesting comparison with the Diana Dors-starring Yield to the Night (d. J. Lee Thompson, 1956), which, despite the denials of the producers, was clearly inspired by Ellis's story.

Soon after Dance With A Stranger, Richardson turned down the Glenn Close role in Fatal Attraction (US, d. Adrian Lyne, 1987), reportedly describing its attitudes towards women as regressive. Newell's next film, The Good Father (1986), about the paternal rights of men, drew some comparisons to the 'anti-feminist backlash' films coming out of the US at the time.

Vanessa McQuarrie

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Video Clips
1. David and Desmond (3:50)
2. A good shot (1:12)
3. School uniform (2:21)
4. A confrontation (2:00)
5. Foggy night (2:13)
Production stills
Madeleine (1949)
Yield to the Night (1956)
Audsley, Mick (1949-)
Everett, Rupert (1959-)
Holm, Sir Ian (1931-)
Newell, Mike (1942-)
Richardson, Miranda (1959-)
Whalley, Joanne (1964-)
Channel 4 and Film
Female Protagonists