An ITV film called Compulsion written by Joshua St Johnston and directed by Sarah Harding was shown on television on 4th May. It was claimed that Compulsion was ‘inspired by’ Middleton and Rowley’s Jacobean tragedy The Changeling; as I could not even recall if I had seen, let alone read, this play I was impelled to go out and buy a book of Jacobean tragedies to see how this ‘inspiration’ operated and then to ponder some questions which the film created for me. But first to the plot of Compulsion. Anjika Indrani, played in a stunning performance by Parminder Nagra (also wonderful in the marvellous Bend it Like Beckham) is the daughter of a very rich man; while at Cambridge she has fallen in love withthe white Alex but after graduation her parents announce that they have arranged a marriage for her with Hardik, son of a business associate of Anjika’s father. Don Flowers, her father’s chauffeur (another stunning performance by Ray Winstone who was also an executive producer for the film) has a burning and over-powering lust for Anjika at least 25 years his junior, she despises and recoils from him; when he discerns her dilemma he offers to solve it if she will spend one night with him. Driven into a corner Anjika agrees. Flowers drugs Hardik, then plants drugs on him and phones the police who arrive and arrest him. Naturally Hardik is no longer a good marriage prospect and Anjika’s father, guilt-ridden over his attempt at marriage-making agrees to meet Alex who is soon approved of as a prospective son-in-law (Alex is a ‘good’ young man, hard-working and desirous of making money). But in the meantime Anjikahas had her night withFlowers. After her initial disgust she finds that she wants to repeat the experience and offers Flowers a second opportunity if he will stop supplying her brother, a wastrel, with drugs. The relationship develops into an affair. When Hardik turns up and surprises them, if not in the act then soon after, Flowers (an ex-Army man) strangles him and buries the body. A female friend of Anjika’s grows suspicious and confides her suspicions to Alex who confronts Anjika; she strongly denies it but realises her situation is desperate. When Flowers arrives for sex she has a knife ready; Flowers discovers it but after Anjika has excoriated him he starts to have intercourse and then places the knife in her hand and stabs himself repeatedly. Anjika phones the police and says she has killed a rapist. The final shots are of her wedding to Alex – she gets into the car, driven by a new chauffeur; wearing Flower’s bracelet the last shot is on her face and is enigmatic in the sense that the viewer can read what they wish into it.
Turning to The Changeling one has to say that the ‘inspiration’ is in in terms of plot pretty indirect. For a start The Changeling himself is in fact a character (Antonio) in the sub-plot of the play, which concerns two young men who disguise themselves as in one case a fool (Antonio) and the other a madman (Fransiscus) in order to gain access to the young wife of a jealous husbandwho runs an asylum and allows her no access to any but fools and madmen. Clearly all this has no relation to Compulsion. The main plot of The Changeling however concerns Beatrice who, when the play opens, is engaged to Alonzo but is in love with Alsemero. The Flowers figure is de Flores(to be sure anyone who carries out the exercise I am doesn’t miss the connection I suppose!) who is described in repulsive terms. He agrees to get rid of Alonzo if Beatrice will sleep with him, but here carries out the getting rid of by murder. De Flores and Beatrice only sleep together once as far as I can tell and there is no indication that she enjoys it. However because she has now lost her virginity she has to think up some ruse to deceive Alsemero on their wedding-night, so she persuades her maid Diaphanta to take her place. While the ruse is successful the whole plot quickly unravels (not very convincingly), Beatrice tells Alsemero the truth, deFloreskills Beatrice the truththen commits suicide, the other plot is brought to a conclusion and various morals enunciated.
Now quite apart from the complete absence of The Changeling’s sub-plot the obvious and enormous difference is that there is no suggestion whatever in the play, as far as I can tell, that Beatrice in any way enjoys her sexual encounter with deFlores, let alone half-falls in love with him. This entirely changes the focus, direction and dynamics of the two plots. The other major difference is of course that in the play Beatrice has to die whereas in Compulsion Anjikato some extent ‘gets away with it’. Bothpoints are to some extent a reflection of historical difference – to what extent would it have been acceptable to show Beatrice enjoying herself sexually with de Flores? If this is questionable allowing her to get away with it would certainly not have been allowable – the ‘guilty’ had to be punished for their actions. Both these differences are fascinating in terms of historical shifts. But what they leave in terms of comparison are really a plot starting point; yes there may be deft nods to the original in Compulsion – the de Flores/Flowers one can hardly be described as deft, but in The Changeling Beatrice drops a glove which deFlorespicks up; when he does so she pulls off the other and throws it down withthe words ‘Take ’em and draw thine own skin off with ’em’; this scene is fairly exactly transposed to Compulsion where we see de Flores smelling the discarded gloves (this is where I really wish I could find a still and use it to illustrate my point in the way Ellen does so effectively!). Basically however Joshua St Johnson took only the idea that Beatrice/Anjika is repulsed be de Flores/Flowers but agrees to his offered solution as a way out of her problems; from the point of their first sexual interaction the two develop in very different directions.
Despite this there remained an element of Jacobean tragedy about Compulsion. In graphic terms this was most evident at the climax and de Flores bloody self-sacrifice; but beyond this there was a feeling that in some ways all the characters were driven by their compulsions, that in some way there was a limit on the amounts of free will which they possessed. It was also perhaps evident in the fact that the characterisation within the film never aimed for psychological realism; heightened emotions were very much the order of the day but these were conveyed not by over-acting but by good writing and a lush visual style. It is not my intention to write about the theological issue of predestination and the Calvinist/Arminian divide which hangs over The Changeling – no doubt this and much else in the play, including the whole debate about the nature of idiocy and madness which comprise the sub-plot arecertainly worthy of extensive discussion but my concern is with Compulsion. Having accepted the excellence of the writing and direction (and it really was visually striking) the central problems all lie around the figure of Anjika(which can in turn lead to some extent back to Beatrice). There is of course a question of plausibility. This should not be over-stated as plausibility was not one of the film’s major concern (and I always rejoice when British television escapes from what is so often the dead-hand and iron-grip of realism) so I am not referring to the plot as a whole, but simply to the question as to whether it is plausible that Anjika should become deeply sexually attracted to Flowers. Obviously this plays into at least one archetype – that of Beauty and the Beast – and also notions of ‘rough trade’. In both there is a certain amount of male fantasising and wish fulfilment (particularly if you are an average-looking middle aged man! – of course Winstone is in fact probably far better looking than de Flores – not to mention me – as is very clearly indicated as being in Middleton’s text – ‘foul chops’ is his own self-description in Act 2, Scene 1 and that hardly applies to Winstone). Despite this the nature and complexity of sexual attraction is such that I certainly don’t think it can be claimed that Anjika’s attraction is in the least impossible; unlikely perhaps but not implausible. Given this however the next question is to what extent the film can be accused of misogyny – it is as a result of Anjika’s desire for Alex that Hardik is first set-up and later murdered; it is as a result of her passion that Flowers eventually dies as well. Well that is one possible reading! An equally valid one is that it is entirely Flowers fault – he it is who actually first sets-up and later kills Hardik and his eventual demise is the result of his own passion. Other elements in the film argue strongly against the misogyny line – Anjika’sdilemma only exists in the first place because she is a pawn of her father as far as marriage is concerned (this of course was another ingenious up-dating; in The Changeling Beatrice is another such pawn because that was the historical condition of woman at the time, now it is necessary to move the setting to a culture where arranged marriages still prevail). Her brother is allowed to sleep around and mistreat women with impunity. All in all I think that the charge of misogyny is a false one – in this the tone of the film is very different to that of the play where what Beatrice has done is unforgivable within the play’s moral scheme.
Which brings me to a final possible charge – was the film exploitative? I ask because it is a question which interests me and because there is no doubt that Compulsionwas erotic, or more accurately I found it erotic. Part of this eroticism arises from Nagra’s physical beauty which the film played up to, and part from the nature of the central scenario. But in fact if anything I think the film showed us too little in this area; we need to understand the nature of the attraction and it is clear that only comes from the actual sexual interaction between Flowers and Anjika. Of course being a television film little more could be shown! But to return to the central question – any film which deals with issues of eroticism, of lust, of sexuality, of sexual attraction, desire and perversity must by its nature be to some degree exploitative and voyeuristic. Perhaps I should frame that as a question? But for me I think it would be somewhat rhetorical because I do not see how in the medium of film (whether cinematic or televisual) any other approach is possible. Voyeurism is inescapable. Perhaps at a higher level of cinematic art the viewer can be made more aware of their own complicity in this voyeurism but I do not claim Compulsion as high cinematic art. What I would say is that it was a wonderfully clever modern improvisation on a fascinating play in which all elements – writing, acting and direction – were of a very high calibre.
And to end let us turn to the endings. The final moral of The Changeling is given as an Epilogue spoken by Alsemero….
All we can do to comfort one another,
To stay a brother’s sorrow for a brother,
To dry a child from the kind father’s eyes,
Is to no purpose; it rather multiplies.
Your only smiles have power to cause relive
The dead again, or in their rooms to give
Brother a new brother, father a child:
If these appear, all griefs are reconcil’d.
Frankly this is pretty pathetic stuff especially in the light of the events which have immediately preceded it – the dramatic on-stage deaths of de Flores and Beatrice: we all just need to smile at each other – it is at a ‘spread little happiness’ level; almost saccharine, certainly bathetic. In contrast the ending of Compulsion was, as I have already written, an enigmatic shot of Anjika’s face. Certainly she is not happy nor triumphant. But tragic might also be carrying it too far. It is really left to the viewer to project their own feelings about what they have seen. Comparing these two endings one cannot but wonder Middleton would really have liked as his conclusion had he not been circumscribed by the moral and dramatic conventions of his day?