Friday, December 26, 2014

Movie Review - My Cousin Rachel

My Cousin Rachel
Based on the book by Daphne Du Maurier
Starring: Geraldine Chaplin, Christopher Guard, Charles Kay, Amanda Kirby, Bert Parnaby, John Shrapnel, John Stratton, and Richard Williams
Release Date: 1983
Rating: ★★★

Philip Ashley sees off his cousin Ambrose to winter in Italy for his health. Philip impatiently stays home and awaits Ambrose's monthly letters which are more infrequent then ever since he met a distant cousin of theirs, Rachel. Much to Philip's surprise he finally gets a letter from Ambrose saying the two are married. Shortly after, Philip gets a distressing letter telling him to hurry to Italy. On arriving Ambrose is dead and Philip is inconsolable by Rachel's servant and her dubious business associate Rainaldi. As for Rachel, she has left with all Ambrose's possessions, no one knows where. Philip returns home and soon Rachel is at his door, destitute. Philip soon develops feelings for Rachel and desires restitution be made to her for Ambrose never re-writing his will. But money flows through her hands like water, yet where is it going? Philip, blinded by love doesn't heed the warnings of others and is soon gambling with not just his heart but his health and his inheritance at the hands of Rachel.

I find it more then a little ironic that on the poster for this adaptation it says "to most men she was an angel - of death!" Why would I find this ironic? Well, for any movie or miniseries that is translated from a book there is the director's or writer's interpretation of what happens in the book and what it means. With a book written by Daphne Du Maurier you have even more room for interpretation because she lives in the grey areas with ambiguity being her friend. Yet this adaptation had a clear vision that Rachel wasn't a murderess or poisoner and that Ambrose died of a brain tumor, which was also the affliction that Philip suffered from. Therefore the poster is funny to me in that it is trying to shoehorn the adaptation to work with their programing. It was aired on Mystery, so therefore they must book it as mysterious, even if they don't hint at poisoning till the very end and then only half-heartedly. They would have been better off airing it on Masterpiece Theater for all the suspense it had.

But the nail in the coffin, so to speak, of why it is a brain tumor is what happens on Philip's twenty-fifth birthday. In the book he takes a late night swim in the ocean, despite how cold it is, and then drinks copious amounts of Rachel's tisane. Therefore his illness that is attributed to meningitis could conceivably be meningitis or poisoning, we are left with ambiguity. In this adaptation he spends a few days prior to his birthday clutching at his head, never goes for a swim, and then is seen in Rachel's room clearly NOT drinking his tisane. In fact I don't think we saw him drink his tisane once! So poison is definitely not the culprit. If anyone was a murderer it was Philip with his omission of the dangers of the sunken garden, which was far more obvious in this adaptation then in the book.

In focusing the story to the brain tumor versus the duality of the tumor versus the poison you see a paring down of the narrative. This was a very streamlined adaptation in many regards, despite being three hours in length. All the supporting characters who carry quite a bit of the narrative on their shoulders in the book are relegated to almost background artists status. The trio of Philip, Rachel, and Rainaldi are the only characters that matter here. By doing this the adaptation deprives us of great characters and depth that the book has. But in my mind all adaptations lose something in the translation no matter how hard you try. Here we are left with a story that doesn't quite work that decided to go for mood versus story. Instead of getting insight into Philip's change of heart we just see him on his horse, which he has a lot of trouble riding, watching Rachel from the bushes, like some kind of pervert. In fact, they turned the sex up to about eleven in this version, going so far as to show the implied sex between Rachel and Philip on his birthday.

Yet this mood over matter could have worked if the actors were better actors. Christopher Guard, who portrayed Philip, seemed to not have any range of emotion or facial expressions. Yes, he did conceited jackass well, which is basically all Philip is in my mind, but he had to have some range, because conceited jackasses do have mood changes. Him hating Rachel was the same look as him loving Rachel. It was very confusing therefore seeing when or why his feelings changed for Rachel as he was wooden throughout... As for Geraldine Chaplin as Rachel... she is an actor with mild talent and austere beauty that I think got the majority of her work because of her father, ie, Charlie Chaplin. Her accent is so odd in this that it's sometimes hard to make out what she's saying. This isn't helped by the bad sound quality either. At least I can say her accent was pretty consistently odd, but really, I don't know why she needed it. To make Rachel more mysterious? Sigh. I kind of wanted Rainaldi, played by the ever fabulous Charles Kay, to kill them all and run off to Florence with their fortune.

So you're probably wondering, why did she give this adaptation three stars (actually more then I gave the book) if it had all these issues? Aside from the fact that early BBC dramas hold a kind of special place in my heart for the bad sets, reused sound effects (yes, it's THAT ONE bird again), and great character actors, there is what I am now referring to as The Roday Factor. OK, so hopefully you all know who James Roday is. If you don't, shame on you! But I shall take mercy on you and do a brief explanation of the genius of James Roday. James Roday with Dule Hill starred on the much underappreciated USA show Psych, about a fake psychic who was a real detective, in a very unorthodox way. For eight seasons it was the perfect combination of mystery and comedy. Plus, for children of the eighties, it was a goldmine of Goonies references and random sing-a-longs. It was controlled chaos that would make me laugh more then any show out there and made me love James Roday.

About five seconds into this adaptation I voiced to my viewing companion that Christopher Guard looked remarkably like James Roday in certain lighting, to which he agreed. Sadly Christopher doesn't have the acting chops of James, but that's neither here nor there, because watching Christopher he was more and more James Roday's doppelganger. It was so freaky I could not stop laughing. Then I started imagining what this miniseries would be like if James Roday had done it inserting his humor and his acting skills, and this just entertained me more and more. The one scene where Rachel is baring her soul about the unsigned will of Ambrose, he looked so much like James I had to screencap it to show you a compare and contrast. A still image doesn't do it justice, but I think you can get the idea. Also, I think Daphne Du Maurier would adore this unexpected doubling. So in other words, watch this miniseries not for the acting or the interpretation, or anything else, watch it to see what it would be like if James Roday travelled back in time over thirty years ago to be a bad BBC actor.


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