Color, 1990, 104m.
Directed by Christopher Morahan
Starring Paul McGann, Amanda Donohoe, Frederick Treves, Tom Wilkinson, Barbara Leigh-Hunt
Scorpion (DVD) (US R1 NTSC), Guerilla (UK R2 PAL) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
An engaging little British thriller lost in the shuffle of the temporary dip in indie film demand in the early '90s, Paper Mask was one of the few theatrical leading roles for Paul McGann, best known for a stint as Doctor Who and one half of Withnail & I. It also marked a reunion one year later for him and his co-star from Ken Russell's The Rainbow, Amanda Donohoe, who was about to embark on a memorable stint on TV's L.A. Law.
First seen singing along to The Platters' "The Great Pretender," McGann plays a lowly hospital orderly, Matthew, who bemoans the fact that he hasn't made much of his life while out drinking with some friends. Opportunity knocks later that same night when one of them, Simon Hennessy, is killed in a violent car crash. While rifling through the dead man's possessions, Matthew learns he's been selected as a top candidate for a doctor position at a Bristol hospital, so he decides to assume the late physician's identity and go for the job. Despite the suspicions of Dr. Thorn (Wilkinson), the fake Hennessy is chosen and strikes up a friendly, potentially relationship with a nurse, Christine (Donohoe), who slips him a book on treating casualty victims when he seems unsteady on the job. However, his attempts to keep up the charade take a dark turn when his false identity edges closer to being exposed...
Though fairly low key compared to the avalanche of sexy thrillers that would define the rest of the '90s, Paper Mask still works nicely today as it effectively exploits the vulnerability everyone feels in the hands of the medical profession. Director Christopher Morahan (best known for a slew of TV work and the John Cleese comedy Clockwise) keeps things moving quickly throughout thanks to a solid script by John Collee, author of the source novel, and while Richard Harvey's score occasionally lapses into a sludgy '80s synthesizer mess at times, the film has aged very well. Especially interesting now is the fact that it actually feels like a close predecessor to Mad Men, whose first two seasons mirror some of the plot twists and themes found here. Add to that an unexpected supporting cast including The Elephant Man's Frederick Treves (a descendant of the real doctor depicted in that film) and Frenzy's Barbara Leigh-Hunt, whose casting was presumably a nod to the story's Hitchcockian third act.
Though it received a VHS release in both American and the U.K. in the '90s, Paper Mask has remained one of those little treasures people stumble upon often by accident. That status will likely continue with the DVD release from Scorpion, which is presented in anamorphic widescreen and looks substantially better than the tape releases as well as the mediocre UK disc. The audio recording never sounded all that hot in the first place, and that's still the case here; however, the dialogue is clear enough, and the music simply is what it is. Extras include the original trailer as well as arbitrary bonus ones for Go Tell the Spartans, Saint Jack, The Girl Hunters, Wombling Free and The Octagon.
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Reviewed on March 9, 2014.