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The opening credits declare that The Tichborne Claimant is based on a true story. The Tichborne trial was apparently a cause célèbre in the Victorian era, an example of an individual case which rapidly mushroomed into a national issue. And the fact that its ultimate outcome remains shrouded in mystery helps to heighten the suspense as to the true identity of the filmic `Sir Roger'.
This film is, in several key respects, an unusual costume drama. Firstly, it barely concerns itself with romantic relationships, and secondly, it's viewed from the perspective of a black outsider, the butler Bogle, who narrates the story in flashback from the cell of a London workhouse. He claims that "aristocrats are like children - they require careful management," and yet these same pompous nobles later prove very dangerous opponents when defending the status quo.
While many period pieces feel suffocated by their obsession with `authenticity', The Tichborne Claimant isn't without humour, as it traces the efforts of `Sir Roger' in learning how to be a gentleman under Bogle's patient tutelage. In fact, there are echoes of that earlier aristocratic satire, Kind Hearts And Coronets, not least in the unfortunate riding accident which befalls Sir Roger's doting mother.
This is certainly a confident debut from director David Yates and screenwriter Joe Fisher, although it doesn't quite make the impact you'd expect. There is, however, a gripping courtroom climax, featuring cameos from Sir John Gielgud and Stephen Fry, who plays a ruthless barrister. But it's the two lead performances which should be singled out for praise: the South African Kani is a model of quiet dignity, and the Welshman Pugh a combination of uproariousness and vulnerability.
While this intelligent British period flick lacks punch, its interesting "real-life" story of classand identity in Victorian society is assuredly photographed. The humour and performances provide for a different kind of costume drama.