REVIEW: "PAPER MASK" (1991) STARRING PAUL MCGAN, AMANDA DONAHOE, AND TOM WILKINSON; SCORPION ENTERTAINMENT DVD
BY DON STRADLEY
Paper Mask reminds me of those dreams we all have, the ones where we show up at work or school and aren’t prepared for a major meeting or test. I think these dreams show our terror of being exposed as frauds. I also think they serve another function – they’re the brain’s way of telling us to wake up. The brain knows we have to get out of bed, so it creates an unpleasant scenario to jolt us from our sleep. In a way, our brain knows what buttons to push to get us moving in the morning. Still, it’s interesting that so many of us fear being revealed as a fraud. It must be a universal dread.
I imagine lawyers have dreams where they aren’t prepared for a trial. School teachers, too, must have dreams where they enter a classroom without knowing the day’s lesson. I suppose the most well-known of these dreams is the one where an actor has to go onstage but doesn’t know his lines. But these dreams must be especially terrifying for doctors, for few things could be more horrible than entering surgery and not knowing what to do.
Paper Mask never quite approaches the atmosphere of a nightmare – it’s about a young man who sneakily assumes the identity of a doctor and gets a job at a small London hospital. At times he probably wishes it was all a dream, such as his first night of duty when he’s met by badly wounded people, people crying out for pain killers, and a man who’s nearly lost a leg in a motorcycle accident. The phony doctor looks the part, but even rookie nurses can see he’s overwhelmed by the blood and agony of the emergency ward.
The sham artist, played by Paul McGann, had previously worked as an orderly in another hospital. He resented doctors, insisting to his pals that they were arrogant, overpaid jerks. Early in the film he sees an ex-girlfriend and her new doctor boyfriend in a car crash. He pulls them from the wreckage; she’s alive, but her beau is dead. McGann finds the fellow’s application to a nearby hospital; as if to prove his own theory that doctoring is easy, he takes the dead man’s place at the job interview.
McGann has, as one character tells him, the luck of the devil. He passes the interview, even as he stumbles when asked about the posh school he allegedly attended.
Strangely, we’re compelled to celebrate along with McGann as he endures his horrendous first night on the job and gradually passes himself off as a doctor. He’s cagy, learning how to read X-rays by betting an older nurse she can’t identify certain problems. He loses each bet, but slowly learns his way around an X-ray. All is well until he eventually botches a procedure and causes the death of a patient.
As in the best novels of Cornell Woolrich or Patricia Highsmith, the plot thickens and the body count rises. Director Christopher Morahan, a veteran of BBC dramas and comedies, doesn’t go for laughs or dark humor in “Paper Mask.” Instead, he keeps things quick and tight until we know McGann will have to do something desperate to keep up his ruse. McGann is quite good as an ego-driven man who dives into a charade and always seems on the verge of cracking. I like how he occasionally plucks out an old American tune on a banjo, sometimes jubilantly, sometimes forlornly. His favorite song, not surprisingly, is ‘The Great Pretender’. Amanda Donahoe is very good as a feisty nurse who falls in love with McGann, as is Tom Wilkinson as an older doctor who suspects McGann isn’t legit. (Yes, it’s the same Wilkinson who taught the blokes how to dance in The Full Monty.)
I also loved how the movie subtly touched on the ever present British class divide. The working class McGann had begrudged doctors, but when he arrives at his new job, he finds that certain doctors resent the high-class schooling found on his phony credentials. “We just want someone who cares,” hisses Wilkinson. “We don’t care about your bloody superior education!” When McGann sneaks into his alleged alma mater to research his “past”, a boy accosts him.
“I don’t believe you went here,” the boy says. “Your clothes look cheap.”
McGann ignores him.
“I could report you,” the boy says.
“And I could break your neck,” McGann answers.
The movie succeeds because we get to know McGann so well that we identify with his fear of discovery. But are we supposed to feel alarm at the movie’s end, when he’s still out there, putting more people at risk? That’s where the movie gets a bit muddy. Who is the real villain of the piece? Is it McGann, or the medical profession? In retrospect, the most frightening moment of the movie is when Wilkinson informs McGann that he won’t be fired, for it would make the hospital look bad. The idea that a hospital would rather keep an inept doctor than attract attention for having hired him in the first place is enough to make one shudder.