This elegantly mounted 1998 film is a delightful, gently comic tweaking of the British class system. Based on a true case from the 1870s, the story begins a decade after aristocrat Roger Tichborne has vanished at sea, when his family sends its black servant, Bogle (John Kani), to Australia to search for him. Feeling ill-treated after his decades of service, Bogle chooses a likely pretender, a loutish and alcoholic butcher named Arthur Orton (Robert Pugh), and the pair conspire to pass him off as Roger and split his inheritance. Director David Yates implies that class is an arbitrary construction: on the ship back to England, Bogle succeeds in teaching Orton everything from family arcana to proper bearing, and the crude bigotry of the Tichborne elders provides a stark contrast to Bogle's fine manners. Orton's uncanny resemblance to Tichborne suggests that he might in fact be the real heir, and Roger's dotty mother accepts him as her son. But after she dies the family rejects him, and Orton finances a lawsuit against them by selling "Tichborne bonds," advertised as "your opportunity to invest in the oldest and most profitable firm in the British Isles--the aristocracy." The fact that the bonds are sold in low-rent theaters further reminds us how the rise of the bourgeoisie undermined Victorian notions of class, and Yates's rather static direction, relying on the opulent production design, perfectly evokes those calcified social lines. On the same program, Crocodile Snap (1997), a short by Joe Wright. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Sunday, August 8, 4:00, 312-443-3737. --Fred Camper
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.