‘According to Matthew’ awaits its public jury

(Sunday Times)

With the much-awaited silver screen version of a true to life tale of love/lust, trust, treachery and murder that premiered on Monday soon to be released, Kumudini Hettiarachchi recaps the making of the film

A word from Director Chandran Ratnam to Mathew (Alston) and Daphne (Jacqueline) in the courtroom scene

Clad in a black cassock with a cross prominently hanging down from his neck, nestling on his chest, he emerges from the shadows, to place a gentle hand on her shoulder.

A simple gesture but one that would epitomize a scandalous relationship flaunted within the heart of Colombo that would end in nothing short of murder.

Murder most foul at the very hands of the most trusted people, closest to them and not just one but two.

And soon, it will be on the silver screen – a tale of love or was it lust, of trust and treachery, climaxing in murder.

It is the much-awaited ‘According to Matthew’ directed by veteran film-maker Chandran Rutnam soon to be released for all to see in English and also dubbed in Sinhala and Tamil on the circuit of Ceylon Entertainment Ltd. (CEL) and Ceylon Theatres.

“We are next in line for the release of the movie in Sri Lanka, come early June,” says Rutnam, explaining that discussions are being held to premiere ‘According to Matthew’ internationally in Hollywood, Los Angeles, in May. “We’ve done a lot of stuff today (Wednesday) on the Sinhala-dub,” he says, keeping movie-goers agog.

Its very title brings in the symbolism of Christianity, punning on and adding a twist to the ‘Gospel by Matthew’ (one of four canonical gospels), written by a disciple of Jesus Christ.

The main plot revolves around romance and the heinous crime of murder and focuses on the Anglican priest Fr. Mathew Peiris (played by singer Alston Koch who moves from the stage to the cinema’s big screen for the first time).

The centre of the web of intrigue, spiced up with exorcism entangled in whispers of sexual abuse, is the beautiful Church of St. Paul the Apostle, down Kynsey Road, ironically set amidst the health hub of Colombo. It was here that Mathew Peiris as the Vicar held sway over hundreds of people, preaching from the pulpit with thunder and also conducting his then well-patronized Thursday services to chase away the devil from the so-called ‘possessed’, mainly young girls.

No one gave a thought when in real life in the 1970s, Mathew Peiris and his wife Eunice (played by Bimsara Premaratne) offered succour and shelter to a respectable but destitute couple, the Ingrams, Russel (with the name changed to Randy Reynolds in the movie played by Kian O’Grady) and Delrene (as Daphne played by stunning former Miss Sri Lanka and Bollywood actress Jacqueline Fernandez). Both were jobless and without any wherewithal.


In hospital: Director Chandran Rutnam and Daphne (Jacqueline)

The plot thickens as the true events of the mid-1970s — with the Ingrams moving into the Vicarage with its old world charm and trellis work in the very premises of the church — unfold in this cloak-and-dagger tale.

Some of the other characters who make their appearance include Steven (Ryan Wijayaratne), cricketer and friend of Randy and Gavin Ludewyke as Detective Cruse who busts the case. A searing scene is the sub-plot of exorcism of those possessed by the so-called devil (the victim played to perfection by Shamyla Fonseka) which sends a chilling message about the fear of the unknown which grips many a superstitious Sri Lankan, from the humblest to the poshest home across the country.

An illicit affair, right under the ‘unseeing’ eyes of two innocents, not caught up in a ‘love-triangle’, but a ‘love-square’ involving four would end with the conviction of Mathew Peiris of the double murders of Russel and Eunice. They were famously dubbed by newspapers of that time as the Vicarage Murders.

There is a packed house including all those who are playing even minor roles at the premiere of ‘According to Matthew’ on Monday afternoon at the National Film Corporation cinema. Interestingly, some who were part of this drama back in the 1970s, such as Dr. Siddiarachchige Terrence Gamini Raja de Silva, a young intern then who helped crack the case are in the audience, as also Prof. Ravindra Fernando who picked on the opportunity and wrote the book, ‘Murders at the Vicarage – the Mathew Peiris Case’.

As Rutnam’s depiction of this real-life mystery-murder thriller begins with an attention grabbing scene of the priest’s powerful intonation, starting with the ‘Our Father’ and other prayers to a Death Row prisoner, the graphic images of his hanging make the hushed audience ‘reel’.

In the darkened cinema, as scene after scene flits by, the Sunday Times goes back to 2013 and 2014, when ‘trailing’ behind cast and crew, sometimes on location, we wrote a hugely popular series. The articles published over a period of time in the PLUS began with ‘Mathew and me’ (July 28, 2013); ‘According to the doctor’ (August 5, 2013) which led to Rutnam re-writing the script; ‘The plot thickens’ (August 11, 2013); ‘People obeyed him through fear and blackmail’ (August 18, 2013); ‘Pettah comes alive with courtroom scene’ (January 12, 2014); ‘Setting the scene of a crime’ (January 19, 2014); and ‘In the robes of a priest dubbed demonic’ (February 2, 2014).

‘Anuragini’ will be the name of the Sinhala-dubbed version of ‘According to Matthew’, the media briefing preceding the preview is told and when asked, after some debate, it is described as ‘Seductress’. The handouts describe the film as “for the love of a woman, he broke God’s Commandments”, for the Ten Commandments that Christians are bound to follow include: ‘You shall not kill’, ‘You shall not commit adultery’ and ‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife’.

Exhuming the body of Randy (Russel): Filming at Kanatte

“Excited,” he was, says Alston, when he was chosen to play the role of the villainous priest and going through three scripts, liked the second the most because it was in keeping with what he had read of what actually transpired. He has fitted into the role very well, with even his eye movements to match the character.

Referring to Jacqueline, his ‘partner-in-crime’ who debuted into English-language films with ‘According to Matthew’, he excuses her absence on Monday as she “just couldn’t be here” because she is in the midst of shooting ‘Drive’, one of the biggest Hindi budget films, in Mumbai, India, to be released in 2018.

Alston recalls how “crazy” things happened during the filming in Horana of ‘According to Matthew’, when one early morn, about 3, while on location there was frenetic banging on his door. All of them had their individual caravans. It was Jacqueline at his door, fraught with nerves, over the violent shaking of her abode. He then walked over to her caravan but there was nothing untoward happening there.

Aroused by the hullabaloo which was spooking his cast and crew, it was Rutnam who shooed them back into their own caravans with the words….“Stop this nonsense. There are no devils and no ghosts. We start filming at 5 a.m.”

The ghost, if ever there was one, never came back and Alston says in banter that “Chandran was the exorcist”.

The next episode was sometime later, when Jacqueline’s ‘general factotum’ was at Alston’s door, quite shaken about three big black dogs loitering just outside her caravan. When he made his way there, no trace of them could be found.

Regarding the intransigence of the Anglican Church in not allowing them to film within St. Paul’s, Alston is quick to point out that the church should have taken the cue from the fact that permission was granted to the producers of the award-winning film on the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Sir Thomas Becket to conduct the filming inside a church.

“No need to hide the truth under the carpet, whether it’s Christian or any other religion,” says Alston, adding that this was a man (Mathew Peiris) who erred which was documented. He was also convicted and condemned to death by hanging.

Meanwhile, for ‘According to Matthew’ — to be marketed and promoted by Movie Works Media — the jury is still out. It will be the prerogative of the masses to deliver the verdict of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ after viewing it.

The original sequence of actual events:

* August 10, 1978 – Death of Russel Ingram, husband of Delrene, after being admitted to the General Hospital, next door to the Vicarage, with hypoglycaemia.
* March 19, 1979 – Death of Eunice, wife of Mathew Peiris, at the General Hospital after being admitted to the General Hospital in a coma.
* February 15, 1984 – The High Court passes the death sentence on both Mathew and Delrene. (Mathew had overdosed both Russel and Eunice, who were not diabetics, with anti-diabetic drugs.)
* June 28, 1985 – The death sentences are commuted to life imprisonment as Sri Lanka had halted the implementation of the death penalty.
* February 12, 1988 – The Court of Appeal affirms the conviction of Mathew Peiris, while upholding the appeal of Delrene and acquitting her.
* February 3, 1992 – The Supreme Court dismisses Mathew’s second appeal.
* October 28, 1997 – Mathew is released from prison under a general amnesty.
* May 12, 1998 – Mathew goes to meet his Maker. He dies at his home in Moratuwa aged 85.
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