Posts Tagged gothic

My Cousin Rachel

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Roger Michell.                Starring Sam Claflin, Rachel Weisz, Iain Glen, Holliday Grainger, and Pierfrancesco Favino.

Compare and contrast the following sentences. “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.” “Did she; or didn’t she? Who’s to blame?” One of them is the opening to a masterpiece of 20th century literature, which brilliantly sets the stage for a world balanced between beauty and menace with an aura of perpetual ambiguity, wracked by guilt, inner torment, and memories. The other is the opening line of a film adapted from the Wikipedia summary of the same novel.

I will say right now, that on a technical level, this adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel is not a bad film. A couple clumsy edits aside, the cinematography is (mostly) gorgeous, the production design is exquisite, the acting is competent, and the directing passable. None of that makes up for the utter ruination of the novel, which as full disclosure, is one of my three favorite books.

The problems begin with the vapid opening line, which heavy-handedly suggests the conclusion of the story rather than introducing us to Philip (Sam Claflin) and giving us a background to make him sympathetic even as he makes reckless decisions throughout the course of the story. That background, which takes nearly eighty pages in the novel, is bull dozed through in about ten minutes as a prologue before the title card. That pacing barely relents for the remainder of the film.

We see throughout the film that Philip is a rash imprudent man, but since the film races through the story with equal recklessness, we never learn why. Thus we never understand the full tragedy or motivation behind his often conflicting actions.

We learn Philip was orphaned as a young boy, and his wealthy older cousin Ambrose took him in, despite the church ladies insisting a young boy needs to grow up around a woman, which is a hurried way of acknowledging Philip’s sexism and difficulty in relating to women. We do not see any of Philip’s fond or troubled memories with Ambrose that we do in the book, and the film completely omits the crucial detail that Philip worshiped Ambrose, embodying both his virtues and his faults.

The film then rushes to its next plot point to check off: Ambrose fell ill and went to Italy to recover. There, despite his self-affirmed perpetual bachelorhood, he fell in love with Rachel (Rachel Weisz) and married her. Then, Ambrose wrote one more letter to England in which he implored Philip to save him from Rachel who was poisoning him. Philip set out for Italy immediately, consumed with hatred for his murderous witch of a cousin, only to learn Ambrose had died of a brain tumor that made him paranoid and irrational.

Shortly afterwards Rachel comes to England to meet Philip, and when he sees her, his resentment instantly melts. In the scene where they first meet, Weisz embodies du Maurier’s title character so perfectly, that for a brief moment, I was almost swept away along with Philip and tempted to forgive the film its faults, but then it went and butchered her most crucial scenes by rushing through them, which undermined the gravity of Philip’s former antagonism.

The biggest problem with this film is that it seems to think that fidelity to the novel merely consists of hitting all the major plot points. With that it fundamentally misunderstands Daphne du Maurier. No one reads a du Maurier novel primarily for its plot. The biggest weakness of her breakthrough novel Jamaica Inn is the thin and kind of predictable plot. Nonetheless, that novel was successful because of its foreboding atmosphere, generating sympathy for its conflicted protagonist thrown into unethical situations against her will, and because of the way it powerfully painted the Cornish countryside as simultaneously dangerous and liberating. Foreboding atmosphere, morally compromised yet sympathetic protagonists, and a love for the Cornish countryside by the sea are the three things that made du Maurier the great writer she was. This film is interested in none of them.

It needs to be mentioned that Philip’s relationship with Louise (Holliday Grainger), the daughter of his godfather and estate manager Mr. Kendall (Iain Glen), and her unreturned affection for him is also glazed over, which makes her presence at later climactic scenes irrelevant. More damningly, it makes the film’s coda, which is not in the book, appalling not only for the way it downplays the horror of the story, but also for its sexist treatment of Louise and exoneration of Philip.

The greatest strength of du Maurier’s novel My Cousin Rachel is the perpetual ambiguity that hangs over the story. Did Rachel murder Ambrose, or did he have a brain tumor? Is she just careless with money, or is she hiding dark secrets for which she needs money? And finally, is she plotting to murder Philip, or not? The film takes very clear sides, so clear that the attempt to turn the tables is completely unbelievable. In stark contrast, the book builds its atmosphere of horror and tragedy by constantly allowing the reader to second guess himself. That sort of subtlety is as foreign to the film as Rachel’s mysterious Italian friend Rainaldi (Pierfrancesco Favino) is to England.

The last half hour of my screening was permeated with snickering from the audience. I could hardly blame them; the plot points which made sense in the novel, considering the guilt and uncertainty plaguing Philip, seemed ludicrous here with the film’s one sided approach to the central conflict. If there ever was an example of how to ruin a piece of source material while adhering to its major plot points, this would be it.

There will be worse movies I see this year; there have already been worse movies released. There will be none that I hate more than My Cousin Rachel.


Personal Recommendation: D-

Content advisory: Two non-graphic sexual encounters, an anachronistic obscenity, and a mild aura of menace.                 MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.



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Dark Shadows

Year of Release: 2012     Directed by Tim Burton.  Starring Johnny Depp, Eva Green, Bella Heathcote, Michelle Pfeiffer, Chloë Grace Moretz, Gulliver McGrath, Jackie Earle Haley, and Helena Bonham Carter.

Dark Shadows marks the eighth collaboration of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp.  It is not their best work, but it is a far cry from their worst.  Depp plays Barnabas Collins, cursed by the witch Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) whose advances he spurned.  She turned him into a vampire and vowed to destroy all future descendants of the Collins family.  When Barnabas returns one-hundred-ninety-six years later, his family is falling apart and the family business is nearly ruined.

This is natural material for Burton, and both he and Depp clearly enjoy themselves.  The art direction and set designs are impressive, colorful, and engaging without going over the top the way that Alice in Wonderland’s sets were an out of control smorgasbord of unique colors and shapes.  The gothic design of Collinwood is remarkable and strikes a good contrast and balance between the two time periods.  Burton’s recreation of the 1770’s and the 1970’s were amusing .  He gets solid performances out of a mostly familiar cast.  Michelle Pfeiffer is commanding as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, the matriarch of the family.  Helena Bonham Carter is eerie as the selfish Dr. Julia Hoffman.  At one point, I did wonder about having Carter and Pfeiffer switch roles, but I think it was best the way Burton cast it.  Chloë Grace Moretz is sullen and brooding as Carolyn, the secretive daughter of Elizabeth.  Bella Heathcote captures the innocence of Vicky, and Eva Green is seductive and conniving as the evil witch.

The film runs one-hundred-thirteen minutes, which is a little long.  The propulsion of the film is Burton’s eccentricity, solid cast performances, Depp’s occasional humor, and Elfman’s score.  Everything is good, but altogether it may not have enough meat to carry the film for much longer than one-hundred minutes.  It would be sort of like constructing a meal out of gourmet salads and ice cream.  It is enjoyable, but does leave one desiring a bit more.

While Dark Shadows is a film that I personally enjoyed and would certainly be willing to watch again, I would not disagree with anyone who disliked it.  The film is a marked improvement over Alice in Wonderland, which was mostly devoid of any of Burton’s trademark quirkiness.  Perhaps there is too much quirkiness in Dark Shadows creating an uneven pacing and disproportionate balance between comedy and horror.  That certainly could isolate most viewers, especially those less fond of Burton’s oeuvre, or those less familiar with it.  However, this Burton admirer found the film to be an enjoyable change of pace that hearkened back to some of Burton’s best works, such as Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and The Nightmare Before Christmas.

(Or maybe after immediately watching Black Swan, anything is an enjoyable change of pace.  But I doubt that is why I enjoyed Dark Shadows.)

Many critics have complained that Burton and Depp never find a balance between gothic horror and campy spoof.  Barnabas is certainly a fish out of water in the 1970’s, and the film reflects his odd and futile attempts to fit in with society.  I thought that those attempts were humorous rather than isolating, but again, I would understand if the jokes were not to someone else’s taste.  Danny Elfman composed a melancholy gothic theme for Barnabas and the 1770’s that strongly contrasts with the pop music selected for the later time period.  After the prologue, the film cuts forward two-hundred years away from the cursed Barnabas to Vicky who wishes to make a new start to her life.  The switch in the underscoring is appropriately an equal contrast.  The dichotomy between the two styles of music is similar to dichotomy between the gothic horror and the comic awkwardness.  Just as Elfman’s music helps them fit together, Burton and Depp manage to keep all the elements together in an enjoyable mix of horror and comedy, spanning two centuries.

The film is a must see for anyone who is a fan of Tim Burton.  Anyone else who is interested should probably wait until it comes out on DVD.

Content Advisory: Sexually suggestive scenes and dialogue, implied oral sex, fantasy violence – some of it gory, a suicide, and brief crass language.                       MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Adults.

Personal Recommendation: B-

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