BOOK TO SCREEN: White Mischief

Film poster (image from Wikipedia)

Film poster (image from Wikipedia)

1987 film directed by Michael Radford

White Mischief tells the story of the still-unsolved murder of Josslyn Hay, 22nd Earl of Erroll, in Kenya in 1941. Erroll was well-known for being in a louche set in Kenya – his impressive house, Oserian, in the Rift Valley was known as the Djinn Palace, for example – and as one of the worst (or best, depending on your point of view!) womanisers in the colony. At the time of his death, he was having an affair with Diana Broughton, much younger wife of Sir Henry “Jock” Delves Broughton, who was accused of and tried for his murder. Although Broughton was acquitted, there was sufficient doubt about the verdict that no-one was entirely sure that justice had been done.

The film is based on the 1982 non-fiction book of the same name by journalist James Fox, which details Fox’s much later investigations into Erroll’s death, inspired by the writer and critic Cyril Connolly’s fascination with the case. In his book, which is entertaining and interesting, and veers very rarely into speculation, Fox set out the background to the case, including the large number of people involved, summarised the evidence of those involved, and suggested a solution. He even managed a few interviews with those protagonists in the drama still alive. I was inspired to read the book by recently re-reading M M Kaye’s Death in Kenya, which is set fifteen years after Erroll’s murder on a farm near Lake Naivasha. I enjoyed Fox’s book, though there was rather too much information about Connolly’s involvement which, read more than thirty years later, isn’t as interesting as Fox thinks it is. The facts of the case are fascinating, however, and one is tempted to wonder whether Broughton would have been acquitted nowadays, were he guilty, with the advantages of forensic science available.

Josslyn Hay, Earl of Erroll (photo from Wikipedia)

Josslyn Hay, Earl of Erroll (photo from Wikipedia)

In my opinion the film is not very successful, either as an adaptation of Fox’s book (there’s too much detail in it, I think, to successfully transfer to the medium of film) or as a film itself. It goes for full-blown melodrama at the end, and the dialogue and characterisation are extremely sketchy. It’s not altogether the actors’ fault – because the screenplay (by Radford and Jonathan Gems) has to try to cover the Broughtons’ arrival in Kenya, the mutual attraction of Diana and Erroll and Broughton’s reaction to all that, as well as trying to establish the characters already living in Kenya, then the murder, the trial, and the aftermath, there’s almost no time for character development. It might have made a better TV mini-series. Charles Dance (a good deal better-looking than the man he portrays) does what he can with the role of Erroll, and Greta Scacchi isn’t bad as Diana , convincing as someone marrying for money and ambushed by real passion. Joss Ackland is a little too overwhelming as Broughton; he convinces only too easily as the killer of his rival.

The introductory dialogue is pretty clunky, in trying to set up the general air of carelessness and sexual immorality in Erroll’s set. There’s attempts at sex without showing it, through a fair few gratuitous shots of Scacchi’s naked breasts (which annoyed this viewer), and Dance and Scacchi don’t entirely convince as lovers swept away by passion. However, some of the cinematography (by Roger Deakins) is lovely, with shots of Kenya’s countryside and local people, and there are other well-known names in the cast: Sarah Miles as Alice de Janzé, Susan Fleetwood as Gwladys Delamere, Geraldine Chaplin as Nina Soames, a young Hugh Grant as Diana’s close friend (and probable lover) Hugh, and John Hurt as Gilbert Colvile. Chaplin makes an impact in a very tiny role, with her brittle demeanour and evident though unspoken dislike of her husband; Sarah Miles, on the other hand, overplays a character who is already rather loopy. It’s a shame the actress playing June Carberry (Catherine Neilson) isn’t better, since she has a large amount of screen time.

The film takes a fair few liberties with the facts, too: Erroll was no longer married to Idina Sackville at the time (she divorced him ten years previously for defrauding her of her money) though she’s portrayed as his wife at the time of the murder; Diana herself flew to Johannesburg to engage the successful lawyer, Morris, for her husband’s defence, though she divorced Broughton after the trial; Alice shot herself some months after Erroll’s death and not (as appears) a few days later; Broughton committed suicide by taking an overdose after returning to England. Although Fox convincingly provides evidence for the murderer in his book, there is still a certain amount of doubt, so that the absolute certainty of the film, and its showing of facts to fit the theory, seems rather disingenuous.

So, in my opinion, the book is much better than the film, but if you’d like to see how gorgeous Kenya looks, watch the film.

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This entry was posted in 2013 New Reads, Filmed adaptations, Journalism, Read on my Kindle, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to BOOK TO SCREEN: White Mischief

  1. Thanks for this – really enjoyed hearing about the changes from the book as I’d only ever seen the film (when it came out, so it’s been a while) – not mad about the film either despite the attractive cast.

    • Ela says:

      Well, it’s a bit odd because the book is resolutely non-fiction, with the people in it seen entirely at a remove, even the people Fox was able to interview directly. The film is presented more as fiction – the people in it are characters, if you see what I mean.

  2. I’ve never even heard of the book! The case sounds vaguely familiar — though I may be mixing it up with some other case of scandal and murder in the aristocracy. So you definitely came away from the book feeling pretty sure that Broughton had done it?

    • Ela says:

      That’s the conclusion Fox comes up with, but I think there’s sufficient doubt to be absolutely sure: I’m not surprised he was acquitted when tried.

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