Patrick Malahide often plays neat-as-a-pin authority figures to perfection, but one of our all-time favorite characters is the completely bonkers, extremely scruffy miser Uncle Ebenezer from the very excellent 1995 production of “Kidnapped“. Here we take a look at his introductory scene where we get a pretty good idea of just how deviously nutty this recluse is.
[Davy approaches his family home, the very desolate and crumbling Shaws Estate, and knocks on the door. A bird flies out of an open widow. It takes a good while before Uncle Ebenezer opens another window holding a gun.]
Uncle Ebenezer: It’s loaded.
Davy: I have a letter for Mr. Ebenezer Balfour…of Shaws.
Ebenezer: Who’s it from?
Davy: That’s no concern of yours. Is he here?
Ebenezer: Put it down on the doorstep and be off with ya.
Davy: It’s a letter of introduction.
Ebenezer: Of what?
Davy: A letter of introduction.
Admin: And with that we get our first glimpse of Ebenezer Balfour, Davy’s uncle. Ebenezer with his wild disheveled hair matches the crumbling scenery perfectly. It also becomes immediately obvious that Davy thinks Ebenezer is a servant with his imperious “that is no concern of yours” comment. I was somewhat gratified at his subsequent more desperate revelation that it is a letter of introduction after Ebenezer tries to send him on his way. Anyway, it is pretty clear that Ebenezer takes the whole “keeps himself to himself” thing incredibly seriously.
RF: The reason it took so long was because Ebenezer had to unearth his musket before opening the window. 😉 He certainly doesn’t look like “the master of Shaws” at first glance. The bird flying out of the open window also suggests the place is a bit of a… fixer-upper. You get the impression it was once quite stately; now it looks like the sort of place you’d spend the night in to win a bet, or you’d be forced to stay in overnight because your carriage broke down. All it needs is an ogre or a vampire.
Ebenezer: Who are you?
Davy: My name is David Balfour.
[Looks of realization and worry flit across Ebenezer’s face]
Ebenezer: Is your father dead?
Davy: [Stunned silence.]
Ebenezer: Oh aye, he’ll be dead, no doubt. Well man, I’ll let you in.
Admin: Ebenezer’s expressions are perfect as he realizes who Davy is. You can see right away that he knows exactly who Davy is and has been expecting and completely dreading this day. Davy for his part is dumbfounded at Ebenezer’s rude inquiry into his father’s death. I really like the expression and tone Mr. Malahide uses when saying “oh aye, he’ll be dead.” It is as though he’s thinking “oh, typical” as though his brother died on purpose just to foist an unwanted nephew on him.
RF: Can’t blame Davy for being surprised that this strange, wildly dishevelled man somehow mysteriously knows already that his father is dead! 😀 And Ebenezer has been by himself for so long that manners regarding abrupt questioning about fathers’ deaths are completely gone – if they were ever there. But you can see the gears (rusted and probably clogged with old grease) starting to turn in his brain as he realizes who Davy is. You’re right, Ebenezer does seem to regard his brother’s death as more of a personal inconvenience than anything else.
Admin: That rapid sequence of expressions as the old rusty gears turn is excellent. It really adds to the scene and provides a wonderful illustration into Ebenezer’s character and mindset.
[There is lots of unlocking and Ebenezer lets Davy in.]
Ebenezer: Go straight to the kitchen, to your left, touch nothing.
[Ebenezer re-secures all the locks looking back at Davy suspiciously.]
Admin: Ebenezer has a lot of locks and he is very serious about keeping them all secure. He opens the door with such nervous hesitancy that he comes across as very vulnerable. It is almost touching in a way. You kind of want to reassure him that it will be alright, but I don’t think that approach works with Ebenezer. He brusquely sends Davy to the kitchen warning him not to touch anything, but going by the state of the place I don’t think Davy would want to touch anything. It is filthy. Ebenezer watches Davy with a very calculating and suspicious look on his face.
RF: Davy is probably the first person Ebenezer has voluntarily let into the house in years; he definitely eyes his nephew nervously as he lets him in. That’s an interesting look he gives Davy: is he thinking Davy looks like his brother? Wondering what happened at all? Or is he just formulating a plan as to what he’s going to do with this unexpected nephew? Yeah, agreed that Davy definitely wouldn’t want to touch anything – if he did, he’d probably become stuck, like flypaper. Or at the very least, he’d end up covered in a layer of dust.
Admin: It is probably a combination of all three. You know Ebenezer has been fearing this day, but he is still caught completely off-guard.
Ebenezer: You hungry? Heh-heh. You can eat that bit of porridge.
Davy: Is that not your own meal.
Ebenezer: You can have it. Now lets see the letter.
Admin: Ebenezer is incredibly unused to guests. You’d have to be very hungry indeed to eat from that random bowl of porridge sitting there on his dusty table. But, I think for Ebenezer that is being generous. I’m not sure what that nervous little near-laugh is about, but it is very unsettling and just adds to Ebenezer’s already weird demeanor. Thankfully he quickly brings the discussion back to that all-important letter.
RF: Ebenezer seems rather reluctant to put down his musket, although he does show some hospitality(?) in offering Davy his own bowl of porridge. I like how you can see hand prints all around the perimeter of the table, but the table itself, like nearly everything else in Shaws, is covered in a fine layer of dust. 😀 Ebenezer also makes a beeline over to a locked chest at one end of the kitchen and seems to hunch over it almost protectively… foreshadowing!… while asking for the letter.
Admin: Yeah, basically the only dusting he does is when he eats his porridge and lifts his chest lids.
Davy: I told you before, the letter is for Mr. Balfour.
Ebenezer: Who do you think I am? Take me for a servant? I keep none. Now give me Alexander’s letter.
Davy: You know my father’s name?
Ebenezer: It would be strange if I did not since he was my brother. Oh aye! I’m your born uncle, Davy my man, so just give us the letter and sit down and eat your porridge. [Davy hands him the letter and sits down.]
Admin: Well, that is finally cleared up. Ebenezer appears only mildly ruffled that Davy has been taking him for a servant all this time. Ebenezer adds a firm little aside about not keeping any servants with a certain sense of rugged pride. It is all very parsimoniously tough and Scottish of him and almost normalizes him. I really like it when he refers to Davy’s father as “Alexander” which also normalizes Ebenezer a bit as you realize he was once a little boy with a brother. That is when you really start to ask the question: “So what went wrong?”
RF: Ebenezer continues to hover over the chest, one hand imperiously stretched out for the letter – obviously Davy is to come to him, not the other way around. Not only is he sticking by the chest, he also seems to have taken some care to put as much physical space between himself and Davy as possible, avoiding making eye contact as he asks for the letter. He’s not used to this whole visitors thing! He finally cautiously edges over to Davy, but he keeps his hand outstretched, like he’s making a hostage trade for money or something and he’s only willing to get as close to Davy as absolutely necessary… or like he’s approaching a dangerous wild animal. But you’re right, it does almost normalize him when he refers to “Alexander”. Also notice that Davy doesn’t try the porridge. Wise decision! 😉 And as for Ebenezer not keeping a servant – can you seriously see any servant staying at Shaws for long? They’d probably run away screaming within an hour, if not sooner.
Ebenezer: Do you know what’s in it.
Davy: Uh, you can see for yourself, sir, the seal’s not been broken.
Ebenezer: But what brought you here?
Davy: To deliver the letter.
Ebenezer: Aye, but you’ll have had some hopes, no doubt.
Davy: I confess sir that when I was told I had kin folk well to do I… uh…did indulge the hope that they would help me in my life.
Ebenezer: No doubt. No doubt.
Davy: But I look for no favors. I’m no beggar.
Ebenezer: You have the air of one.
Davy: [Rising to leave.] Ah, well, uh poor as I appear, sir, I have friends who would gladly help me.
Ebenezer: Don’t fly up in the air at me. We’ll agree finely.
Admin: Annnd, he’s back to being completely batty. With hindsight, we know that Ebenezer is really just concerned about Davy finding out about his place in the estate. Ebenezer has a very strange habit of looking sideways at Davy, avoiding direct eye contact. It is discomfiting and brings to mind a spider shifting sideways. Creepy!
RF: Yeah, he just barely makes eye contact when he says, “…some hopes, no doubt”, then it’s like he can’t bear it for even that long and has to look away. Ebenezer is trying, in a rather clumsy, haven’t-talked-to-anyone-human-in-a-long-time way to find out what Davy knows, while Davy is so completely innocent that he has no idea what might be at stake. But when Davy mentions “well-to-do kinfolk”, Ebenezer replies, “No doubt. No doubt.” as if his fears have been confirmed. He’s also surprisingly incurious about the letter, too, toying with it rather than reading it immediately. You’d think he’d be relieved at Davy’s snapping at him and let him leave, but instead he’s more conciliatory and persuades him to stay. Hmmm!
Admin: Good observation. You’d have thought he’d have torn into the letter right away, but he was really taking his time with fiddling about with it. It adds further to his overall weird and unsettling vibe.
RF: It also occurred to me later that perhaps that was a bit of a neg when Ebenezer said Davy had “the air of [a beggar]”. Is he trying to goad Davy into a reaction? Or just testing him? Because c’mon, anyone who looks like Ebenezer hardly has any business calling someone else a beggar!
Admin: It seemed like he was testing the waters somewhat. He said it rather daringly which I liked. 🙂
Ebenezer: Well, if your done with that porridge I’ll just take a bit of it myself. [Sits down and takes the porridge for himself.] Your father long dead?
Davy: Three weeks.
Ebenezer: He was a secret man, Alexander, a secret silent man. Did he not say anything about me.
Davy: I never even knew he had a brother.
Ebenezer: Oh dear me, dear me. We’ll agree fine, yet. [Davy looks at him strangely.] I’m glad I let you in.
Admin: Ebenezer appears gratified to learn that his brother has been dead a while now. His expression grows extremely crafty and sly as he talks about how secretive and silent Alexander was. He looks positively delighted when finds out Davy had no idea his father even had a brother. With the scruffy appearance and impish devious smile, Ebenezer is like something from a fairy tale which is to say he seems dangerous. Davy is very naive, but even he raises an eyebrow at the “agree fine, yet” line. Ebenezer might be glad he let Davy in, but he doesn’t seem anything like a loving uncle to me. He’s definitely in spider mode.
RF: Ebenezer definitely has a “waste not, want not” attitude when it comes to porridge. 😀 I’d say he didn’t want it to get cold, but something tells me he wouldn’t care. And for Ebenezer to call Alexander a “secret man”, with that little smirk, suggests… perhaps a bit of sneaking admiration? If there’s anything Ebenezer could admire, it would be Alexander keeping his existence a mystery, since he’s incredibly secretive himself. He briefly makes eye contact with Davy again when he asks, “Did he not say anything about me?”, I suspect because he’s genuinely curious what the answer is and is just narcissistic enough that he can’t help himself.
RF: But I think there’s another motivation at work as well. Ebenezer also knows there’s an inheritance at stake and he’s beginning to realize Davy doesn’t; his manner begins to improve as soon as he realizes that his “secret, silent” brother has apparently told Davy nothing. His “Oh, dear me, dear me” is meant to come across as friendly – and maybe it even does, to Davy – but you’re right that he seems like more of a fairy tale character who’s pleased at having lured the young prince into his castle and is now fomenting Evil Plans!™ for what will happen next. He does everything but chuckle fiendishly to himself. Definitely spider mode! Maybe that explains why there are so many cobwebs around Shaws.
Admin: I enjoyed that little “oh, dear me, dear me.” It somehow manages to be all cute and amusing as well as somewhat sinister. You know he likes the direction in which all the information is heading, and that can’t possibly be a good thing.
Admin: And there you have it. Uncle Ebenezer’s memorably weird ‘n daffy introduction scene. 🙂