Out on DVD for the first time statewide, Scorpion Releasing's PAPER MASK will make you think twice when you next visit the doctor.
When his ex-girlfriend's hotshot doctor brother Simon Hennessy (Dale Rapley) is killed in a collision with a bus, look-alike hospital orderly/failed medical student Matthew Harris (Paul McGann, EMPIRE OF THE SUN) decides to take his identity in interviewing for a new position as Casualty Officer at the Royal Clifton Hospital. He is able to bluff his way through the interview, largely because absent-minded senior doctor Mumford (Frederick Treves, DEFENSE OF THE REALM) is suitably impressed with his schooling and supposed shared acquaintances that he overrules the more skeptical Dr. Thorne (Tom Wilkinson, RIPLEY UNDER GROUND). Matthew quits his job at the other hospital, making the excuse to his one close friend and co-worker Alec (Kenneth Branagh favorite Jimmy Yuill, HENRY V) that he is going to be crewing on a yacht in the Mediterranean, consigning all of his own personal belonging to the incinerator, giving away his monogrammed silver cigarette case and flushing his engraved watch down the train toilet. His first day in the casualty ward is a disaster, but Thorne – in the interests of the hospital's reputation – gives him an ultimatum rather than firing him, and attractive nurse Christine (Amanda Donahue, THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM) finds him suitably intriguing to take him under her wing (and then into her bed when her father suddenly dies). Because lies turn her on, he tells her the truth about his identity and background; but Christine does not realize he's telling the truth until after she has covered up for his fatal error that results in a death (and a subsequent suicide). There are other loose ends, however, that threaten to expose his identity and drive him to a crime more premeditated than negligent.
Scripted by John Collee (since the screenwriter of MASTER AND COMMANDER and HAPPY FEET) from his own novel, PAPER MASK starts off almost like a Lifetime drama before veering into some subtle black comedy as well as the believable and discomforting notion that new doctors tossed into the deep end of practice could be just as dangerous and negligent as Matthew. Director Christopher Morahan worked prolifically in television and only directed a few features – including the John Cleese comedy CLOCKWISE – and PAPER MASK had an eighties/nineties British TV movie feel to it (nudity, profanity and all); not unlike a lot of worthy British features from this time that were not Bond films or period pieces, and it doesn't hurt the story at all. McGann gives a quirky and manic performance that ratchets up already tense scenes immeasurably, while Donahoe – who would reunite with McGann the following year in Ken Russell's THE RAINBOW – will be a surprise to American viewers who might only be familiar with her via Ken Russell's LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM. The cast is also filled out with a number of actors who may be more familiar as faces than names to regular viewers of British television including Mark Lewis Jones (THE ANGRY EARTH) as one of Matthew's more brash colleagues, Barbara Leigh-Hunt (FRENZY) as Mumford's wife, and Charmian May (A DEMON IN MY VIEW) as the radiographer who has a standing wager with Matthew over diagnoses of illnesses via X-rays. The scoring of Richard Harvey (HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS) is relatively unobtrusive, although the title sequence is accompanied The Platters' 1956 song "The Great Pretender"; at first seeming only superficially related to the film's themes until it is heard again later (sung by a banjo-strumming McGann) given the character's additional entanglements. The final scene is a bit cliché, but viewers can be thankful the filmmakers didn't cop out at the last minute with the ending that preceding cross-cutting sequence was implying.
Released on VHS by Academy Entertainment, PAPER MASK comes to DVD in a progressive, anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) transfer of recent vintage that is attractive enough given the overcast and muted look of much of the film's exteriors (with more vibrant colors in the art direction and some gel lighting suggesting that it faithfully represents the cinematography of Nat Crosby (a television cameraman who only shot a few features including John Schlesinger's MADAME SOUSATZKA). The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track is rather restrained – given the busy hospital settings – apart from the score and a couple tense scenes, but it is in keeping with the film's overall aesthetic. Extras include the film's trailer (1:01) and trailer for GO TELL THE SPARTANS, SAINT JACK, THE GIRL HUNTERS, WOMBLING FREE, and THE OCTAGON. (Eric Cotenas)
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