It is debatable whether Compulsion should properly be described as an ‘adaptation’ of Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s 1622 play The Changeling. There are numerous parallels between the original Jacobean drama and the film’s tale of obsession and murder in contemporary London. On the other hand, the film is credited solely to its writer Joshua St Johnston and carries no acknowledgement to its inspiration. ‘Loosely based on…’ is perhaps the best description of the relationship between the polished and powerful modern melodrama and its source. As a consequence, Compulsion probably does not even belong in the Screen Plays canon, but I am posting about it today since it is the final presentation in the ‘Classics on TV: Jacobean tragedy on the small screen’ season at BFI Southbank.
‘We’ve taken a central idea from The Changeling about the sexual awakening of a young girl,’ producer Steve Matthews acknowledged in a Daily Telegraph preview feature about Compulsion.
Middleton in this play stumbles on an idea of sexuality that is about 300 years before its time. Then, suddenly, he fumbles the ball because he hasn’t got Freud, he hasn’t got modernism. Our writer, Joshua St Johnston, has turned it into a twisted love story about a privileged girl who has only ever been allowed to exist as a construct of other men. Her affair with Flowers is the first real thing that happens to her. (Serena Davies, ‘Interview: Ray Winstone and Parminder Nagra on Compulsion‘, 28 April 2009)
Whether or not Middleton – and Rowley – ‘fumble the ball’ in their script, they certainly provide many of the key elements in Compulsion, including the fetishistic sniffing of a pair of discarded gloves (although Don Flowers – as De Flores has become – asks a prostitute to wear them for sex, rather than, as the original stage direction has it, ‘He thrusts his hand into the glove’.) It is tricky to write about the specifics of further plot developments without giving too much away, but since we are in a modern-day world infused with the spirit of Jacobean tragedy, you can expect things to end badly and bloodily.
Beatrice-Joanna (Parminder Nagra) is translated from The Changeling into Anjika, a beautiful young Indian woman whose parents enjoy a gilded London life-style funded by her father’s tobacco business. She is just down from Cambridge with a white boyfriend, Alex (Ben Aldridge) about whom her parents know nothing. Her father initiates a version of an arranged marriage which will be convenient for his business interests and Anjika turns for help to the family chauffeur Flowers (Ray Winstone) who she despises. Familiarity with The Changeling will help the viewer know in advance the reward that he demands. And you might already have guessed that the original play’s ‘madhouse’ sub-plot has no modern equivalent.
In an article published in Shakespeare Bulletin after the film’s transmission, director Sarah Harding reflected on her approach to the film.
Our preproduction coincided with the publication of Gary Taylor’s authoritative collection of Middleton’s works [published by Oxford University Press in 2007]. By chance I heard him on Radio Four making the provocative but illuminating distinction that Shakespeare writes about love and Middleton about sex. At his talk during the run of The Revenger’s Tragedy at the National Theatre, this charismatic speaker with matching purple fingernails and waistcoat opened a door to the Middleton world of uncertainty, direct speech and ‘angry young men.’ ‘Welcome to the modern world,’ he wrote in the play’s program… [Taylor’s] idea of ‘Middleton, our Contemporary’ validated my student response to a play full of complexity and ambiguity about morality and desire. We, too, do not always do what is good for us; in our modern world of recreational sex we underestimate the power of our animal responses.
Anjika… thinks she is in control, whereas she is actually playing with fire… Joshua told the story from her point of view and, without removing the ambiguity, I hoped that making the film would explore her inner contradictions and agency in the process. Hovering, though, was the danger that we would end up with a near-pornographic old man’s fantasy as he enthrals his employer’s daughter with a transformative sexual experience, but that was a risk worth taking. (‘Compulsion: A view from the director’s chair’, Shakespeare Bulletin, 29.4 Winter 2009, p. 605)
Compulsion was screened in a 9pm primetime slot on ITV1 and it achieved a respectable audience, according to the overnight figures, of 4.7 million. But the critical reception was not kind, as reviewers attacked it for its far-fetched qualities. Sam Woolaston wrote in the Guardian
It’s all so utterly implausible. I don’t believe in Anjika’s relationship with her English boyfriend, or anything they say to each other (“At least you know I’m not just after your money!”). I don’t believe that she would allow Flowers to have his wicked and creepy way with her… [It’s] not just implausible, that’s bordering on icky – a seedy old man’s fantasy, and I don’t care if the story is based on a Jacobean play. (‘Last night’s TV’, 5 May 2009)
In part at least these strictures speak to the prevalent expectation that popular television drama should be in some sense ‘realistic’, or at least that melodrama should be contained and constrained. As other dramas in this ‘Jacobean tragedy on the small screen’ season have attested, such were not the presumptions of the stage four centuries ago.
In contrast, Peter Kirwan, one of the finest academics writing on screen adaptations of early modern drama, contributed a far more sympathetic blog post about Compulsion on his site The Bardathon
The strength of this drama for an understanding of The Changeling… was in its exploration of the line between hate and love that Beatrice-Joanna and DeFlores tread finely. While I felt that the film possibly dipped too far in the middle towards romanticising the relationship between the two (having a jolly weekend together while her parents were away, for example), for the most part the couple were tied together by strong, irrational bonds that governed them. It’s yet another example of Middleton being effectively translated to explore the complexity of contemporary morals, and a call for revived interest in the original play. (‘Compulsion @ ITV1′, posted 5 May 2009)