Mrs Ratcliffe's Revolution

Mrs Ratcliffe's Revolution


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

Younger readers may find it hard to imagine, but there was a time when Europe was totally divided, Polish plumbers wanting to come to Britain risked death, imprisonment and torture - and a common remark to be heard in political arguments was: “if you like Russia so much, why don’t you go and live there?”

Amazingly, a few people actually did, but this misfiring Britcom takes a fascinating true story of a committed Communist who relocated his family (lock, stock and ‘political purchase’ Russian car) to East Germany, and gets nearly everything wrong in retelling it.

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It didn’t help that it was released soon after The Lives Of Others, one of the finest films of recent years, which showed in forensic detail what a truly Orwellian nightmare life in the GDR was; one of the most enthusiastic of the Soviet Union’s client states, its Stasi secret police built a huge network of spies and informers, creating a world in which you could literally trust no one.

Not a natural topic for comedy, then, and kudos to Eltringham and the writing team (who also penned the much superior Sixty Six) for even trying. But it could have succeeded given a more barbed, satirical treatment. The film takes a basically warm-hearted approach to an inappropriate subject and is too sympathetic to all its characters to be able to handle the shift from comedy to drama.

The opening scenes, to be fair, are good fun, introducing us to the family life of Frank Ratcliffe (Iain Glen), Yorkshire schoolteacher and stalwart of the Bingley Communist Party; he mans the stall every Saturday morning, while his younger daughter Mary (Jessica Barden) deliberately loses the school 100-yard dash as a protest against Vietnam and her sister Alex (Brittany Ashworth) scandalises her art class with avant-garde work like ‘Frog’ ( a very big canvas with a very small painting of, er, a frog). Meanwhile Mum Dorothy (Catherine Tate) keeps the household ticking over and looks after her terminally shy brother Philip (Nigel Betts), invisible to everybody.

She’s very dubious when Frank receives an invitation to teach in East Germany but allows herself to be persuaded. When the family get there they find the workers’ paradise isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The flat’s shabby and they share a loo with their chain-smoking, one-legged neighbour Frau Glock (Ottilia Borbath). Dorothy finds her role absolutely unchanged, except that she has to cope with food shortages and a language barrier; Alex finds her passion for rock music and Andy Warhol is frowned upon just as much as it was back home.

Only Mary keeps the faith, and is encouraged to ‘keep an eye’ on her family by the local youth organisation leader Frau Unger (Heike Makatsch from Love Actually), who sets her cap at Frank and becomes a surrogate mother to the Ratcliffes, only adding to Dorothy’s unhappiness and her desire to escape...

There’s a lot of potential here, and some of the scenes are well-handled. The trouble is there’s not that many laughs for a comedy, and the few there are trade on stereotypes (foreigners have rats in the kitchen, bad plumbing and funny accents; and the Germans, well they’re so earnest, aren’t they?) When Dorothy sees how miserable everyone around her is and contacts the underground escape organisation, the process seems to go on for ever, creating a very flabby middle section and diffusing any dramatic tension.

Even the entrance of the Stasi fails to either inject an air of menace or simply speed the plot up.

It’s not a complete disaster – Tate tones down her usual mannerisms and creates a believable, rounded character who finds freedom includes the freedom to realise your husband’s wrong and tell him so; and Glen perfectly catches the essence of the classic earnest leftie - basically good-hearted, but so desperate to do things his way that he becomes exactly what he’s supposed to be fighting. The supporting cast do an excellent job too, with pretty limited material.

And there are some effective, affecting scenes; Frank trashing his beloved car when told of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia; Frau Unger giving Mary her ‘secret diary’, as though spying on your own flesh and blood was just another out-of-school activity. More stuff like that, and a blacker take on a world where people get used to living in a nightmare (as worked so well in Goodbye Lenin!) could have made Mrs Ratcliffe truly revolutionary.

As it is, it’s not funny enough to be a good comedy or dramatic enough to make good drama. If you’re a fan of the stars, or want a bit of nostalgia (the soundtrack’s pretty cool) for a time when the world really did seem to be changing and politics really did seem important, give it a try. But, unlike Frank, keep your expectations low.

Reviewed on: 08 May 2008
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Mrs Ratcliffe's Revolution packshot
In 1968, an idealistic schoolteacher moves his family to East Germany in order to experience life in a Communist paradise. But his family, especially his wife, are not so eager.
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Director: Bille Eltringham

Writer: Bridget O'Connor, Peter Straughan

Starring: Catherine Tate, Iain Glen, Jessica Barden, Brittany Ashworth, Heike Makatsch, Ottilia Borbath

Year: 2007

Runtime: 102 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: Hungary, UK


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