A kind of British version of “The Return of Martin Guerre” set in class-defined Victorian England, “The Tichborne Claimant” is a thoroughly tony costumer bristling with such old-fashioned delights as well-turned dialogue, urbane wit, neat but unflashy lensing and even a courtroom finale. Sans major stars in the leading roles, this indie production may prove a tricky sell in today’s theatrical market, but nevertheless reps a confident debut by two first-timers, director David Yates and scripter Joe Fisher.
Based on a true story, pic opens in a grim London workhouse in 1895, where an aged black man, Andrew Bogle (John Kani), lies dying. Guts of the movie are a long flashback, in which Bogle records for posterity the events that led him there.
A servant in the wealthy Tichborne family, Bogle had been sent to Australia in the mid-1870s to track down missing scion and heir Sir Roger, a dissolute adventurer gone missing at sea a decade earlier.
Bogle makes his own selection from those claiming to be Sir Roger and enters into a pact with the successful applicant (Robert Pugh): Bogle will tutor him in aristocratic manners and family background on the three-month voyage back, and they’ll split any successful claim on the Tichborne estate 50-50.
The Claimant is a rotund, larger-than-life drunk married to a tough and trashy Irish woman (Rachael Dowling). To Bogle’s relief, he convinces most of the family back in Blighty, especially Sir Roger’s domineering mom (Paola Dionisotti); but when the latter suddenly dies in a riding accident, the doubters in the Tichborne family rally their forces and expel the Claimant.
Aided by Bogle, a hungry young lawyer (Perry Fenwick) and an entrepreneur-cum-showman (Dudley Sutton) who rallies working-class Brits to buy “Tichborne Bonds,” the Claimant takes his case to the High Court, where the forces of the establishment make a last stand, fronted by a canny barrister (Stephen Fry).
Given that it’s clear from the start that the Claimant is not Sir Roger, the story’s suspense lies how long he will outwit the scheming Tichborne family and the truth of the real Sir Roger’s disappearance. The latter emerges from the climactic trial — a wonderful duel of wits in which Fry excels — but it is the former that powers most of the movie.
At the time, the case mushroomed into a nationwide issue — one of the great liberal causes of the age that ran across class lines, and the longest trial in English legal history until very recently.
Fisher’s screenplay, as interpreted by a sterling lineup of Brit veteran actors (Robert Hardy, John Gielgud, James Villiers, Charles Gray, Sutton), gives a real feel for the emotions unleashed and reputations at stake.
Combined with the movie’s realistic production design, which squeezes the most from the reported $ 4 million budget, and clever camerawork by Peter Thwaites — all deep blacks and ochers — pic emerges as a thoroughgoing portrait of an age, a last stand by the aristocracy in a rapidly changing Britain.
South African thesp Kani (“The Ghost and the Darkness”) brings a quiet dignity to Bogle, a former slave who has nothing to lose, that provides the film’s emotional undercurrent. But it’s legit actor Pugh who provides the acting fireworks as the Claimant, in a performance that is by turns ripe, raw and touching.
Locations in Liverpool and the Isle of Man do convincing duty for London and rural England, and Nicholas Hooper’s alert symphonic score rates a major bow, adding shape and atmosphere to the labyrinthine tale. Casting is also on the nose, with a lineup of faces that looks like an illustration of a Dickens novel.