(27/09/07) – The words can fill many a viewer with dread – "a bittersweet British period comedy drama". Mrs. Ratcliffe’s Revolution has the whole bucket of genre tropes at its beck and call – a fiercely individual bickering but quirky family (the stroppy teenager, the idealistic kid, the put upon housewife who basically keeps the whole bunch from imploding), wacky neighbourhood characters, the prime concept premise that turns dark, the soundtrack of memorable cover songs that counterpoints the action, the romances and the uplifting moments of little triumphs from the least likely of characters.
So far, so formulaic. Yet, Mrs. Ratcliffe’s Revolution manages to use the confines of the genre to exceed expectations, resulting in a tightly scripted, frothy film filled with joie de vivre and sheer go-for-it exuberance. By no means perfect (occasionally the film’s need to identify its many sub-plot strands leads to rough caricature and frankly, given the oppressive nature of the Stasi, some of the film seems distinctly absurd) this is nevertheless an enjoyable romp with a serious tone that marks the film an unlikely amalgam of East Is East and Lives of Others.
Anyone doubting Catherine Tate’s acting abilities after the truly horrendous Dr Who Christmas Special need only to catch her role here as the titular Dorothy, long suffering housewife to raving socialist teacher Frank and her two daughters, a performance moving from concern to pathos, humour to anger at the drop of a hat.
Frank, in a joyous display of Communist fervour decides to move his family from Blighty and take up a teaching post in East Germany, fulfilling his lifetime dream of comradeship with the working brethren away from capitalist ideology. Once there the family have to cope with life in the drab apartments, employed in state-sanctioned jobs and learn to live under strict state control. Younger daughter Mary initially takes to Communism, becoming an informer for the Stasi but older Alex makes it her job to bring sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll to the oppressed youth. Naturally cultures clash. Dorothy, in a fit of emotional turmoil, inadvertently leads a suicidal teenager to freedom in the West, prompting a plan to escape back home by whatever means necessary.
The loopy premise (based, almost unbelievably, on the true story of Brian Norris, who took his family from Bolton to Halle in 1968) and the clash between ideology and actuality help keep the tension amidst the humour. When one character declares that he wants to be a trumpet player "like your Roy Castle", the apparently innocent statement is countered by the way that the state suppresses non-sanctioned entertainment, eventually culminating in Alex’s arrest for subversion and Frank’s reluctant agreement to become an informer in order to save her.
The film is sprinkled with such contradictory moments and larger than life characters – the one legged capitalist neighbour, the seductive Stasi Frau Unger – but it all hinges on the normality of Dorothy coping with the insanity around her and rising from being "just a housewife" to a proactive, independent woman fighting for her family against the odds and even against her own husband.
A sprightly, feel-good comedy with a compellingly left-field premise and stall pleasing performances Mrs. Ratcliffe’s Revolution won’t be on anyone’s list of worthy art film contenders but does raise plenty of smiles and provide some light food for thought.
Mrs. Ratcliffe’s Revolution is released in the UK tomorrow, 28 September 2007.