My Cousin Rachel (2017)



Daphne du Maurier’s novels have never really gone out of fashion, certainly not Rebecca, but this nineteenth century-set variation on gaslighting and Gothic has not been a favourite. Already adapted in 1952 starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton, it gets a run through in a new British version written and directed by Roger Michell. Sam Claflin is Philip the devoted cousin of Ambrose Ashley whose illness drives him to the sun and Italy where he falls for the half-Italian Rachel (Rachel Weisz) and his letters home indicate that she means him ill. When Philip goes to Italy he discovers his cousin is dead, Rachel has vanished and the house is empty with only a man called Rainaldi (Pierfrancesco Favino) to suggest what might have happened. Rachel then materialises at Ambrose’s estate in England where Philip is running the show. He wants to kill her and avenge this monster for his cousin’s supposed murder…. but she is stunningly beautiful and she bewitches first his dogs, then him. His godfather Nick Kendall (Iain Glen) warns him off her and his daughter Louise (Holliday Grainger) who is Philip’s presumed future wife also sees that he is enchanted by her. His own doltish undeveloped sexuality means he is wholly taken in by her – and then means to have her, at whatever cost. She prepares tisanes for him that seem designed to poison him but he rushes into a financial settlement upon his coming of age despite evidence that she is sending vast sums of money abroad: a marriage would seem to be the solution to his carnal needs and her avarice. The combination of two attractive players who nonetheless appear to be in parallel universes doesn’t help this interesting interpretation of toxic relationships and male paranoia that wraps around a mystery that isn’t particularly puzzling:  she is after her late husband’s money. The shock of what Rachel does after a bout of al fresco sex in a bluebell wood is one of the several juxtapositions that reminds one that this is a very modern take on a tale that is old as the hills:  marriages are never equal and relationships based on revenge are never going to end well.


The Girl on the Train (2016)

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Spoiler alert:  don’t read this if you haven’t seen it! Paula Hawkins’ thriller novel was the watercooler special last year – the tale of Rachel (Emily Blunt), a sorry alcoholic divorcee who pretends to her roommate that she goes to work every day on the train but in truth is rambling around London unemployed. Her train route passes her old house where her husband is still ensconced but with the woman he married and their baby and down the street the young woman who appears to be having an affair disappears and our protagonist believes she’s been murdered. But she’s had a blackout and she finds herself at home covered in blood and thinks that she must have done it and works to clear her name. A good premise – but in truth the book shuffled back and forth from different characters and time frames and you had to leaf back through it to remember who was who and what was what … and you know what? It was a structure that made it seem better than it was. And so we have a change of location – to Westchester, NY, despite two English principals, Emily Blunt and Luke Evans, with no evident rationale. There is no attempt to establish a sense of place. The shooting style, editing, C-list casting choices and screenplay adaptation (altered very little, bad, bad idea…) means that there is effectively very little mystery, and it’s all handled so ineptly by director Tate Taylor that at the screening I attended, when Justin Theroux has the screwdriver plunged and turned harder into his neck (kinda like what Emily has been doing all along, just to bottles) people laughed out loud. You might make a claim for abject maternity (can’t have/won’t have/has baby and lords it over everyone) but that would be to give it credence. Worse than Thursday nights on Lifetime channel, this is dire beyond belief. It’s extraordinary that this trash was released by a major studio in this kinda shape and I’ll wager only Emily Blunt’s presence precluded it being quietly dumped. This was evidently fixed after a cut was delivered:  can you actually conceive of a film being any worse than this?! Money back? I wish! I need a drink …

Gaslight (1944)

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Patrick Hamilton’s play gets the big screen treatment with Anton Walbrook … oh no! That’s the one I love! And this is the other one, with Boyer and Bergman. Oh well. That’s TCM for you – false advertising, false hope. When Hollywood got their mitts on this they tried to destroy all the prints of the 1940 English adaptation directed by Thorold Dickinson, but thankfully for the movie lover, they never burned the negative. Anyhow, here we are with the American version, adapted by John Van Druten and Walter Reisch, which director George Cukor said was as happy a collaboration as you would want – until all those writers got ideas about ‘saying something.’  (John Balderston also did some work on it, but we weren’t supposed to know about it.) A big backstory is added with Charles Boyer seducing the teenaged Bergman in Italy where she was removed after witnessing the death of her aunt, a well-known opera singer, whose career she cannot hope to emulate. Her new husband persuades her to return to the scene at Thornton Square and then proceeds to drive her mad. This is where the term ‘gaslighting’ originated and it is steeped in the Gothic romance films of the period, which commenced with Rebecca. It’s a departure for Cukor, who was heavily dependent on the amazing production design which stuffs the house with clutter and ornamentation and is stifling in the peculiar way that post-Victorian decor can be. The lights dim, there are odd noises, and the snarky spiteful maid (Angela Lansbury) is in cahoots with the master. Bergman studied a mentally ill woman to convincingly portray a woman losing it, Boyer just doesn’t do it for me – he’s too obviously a villain in that Continental manner. (Whereas Walbrook … ooh, missus!) It’s Lansbury who’s astonishing. She was new to Hollywood, the 17-year old daughter of actress Moyna MacGill and wrapping gifts in Bullocks when Cukor was told about this recent emigree from the blitzed city where this was set. And THIS was her first screen appearance? Wow!!!! I still prefer the original, though. Ahem.

Midnight Lace (1960)

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Just how much do we love Doris Day? Oh, let us count the ways! Probably better appreciated nowadays for her work as a brilliant comedienne, she also did the odd dramatic work and acquitted herself extremely well. Here she’s the housewife in London terrorized by a series of phonecalls in which an unknown voice tells her she’s going to be murdered. Janet Green, who wrote the stage play, was a noted screenwriter with a venerable body of work and this was quite a hit in London in its day. Ivan Goff and  Ben Roberts (who simultaneously had the similarly themed Lana Turner vehicle Portrait in Black on release)  adapted it for the screen. Reunited here with director David Miller who had a great record bringing Oscar noms to actors, she is definitely in a Universal Picture:  Ross Hunter along with her husband Martin Melcher on producing duties, Russell Metty doing the cinematography and art direction by Robert Clatworthy and Alexander Golitzen. There is Sexy Rexy Harrison as Doris’ elegant husband and a wonderful supporting cast including Myrna Loy, Roddy McDowall, Herbert Marshall, Natasha Parry, Hermione Baddeley and Hitchcock favourite John Williams as the Inspector along with Anthony Dawson  (also from Dial M for Murder) in the lineup. As you might surmise, this is indeed another case of Marriage is Murder. London at the time was quite the location as we know from previous outings. (I want a flat in St James’, and in this life, please). Not the greatest thriller of its time but boy is it fun! Now:  when is someone going to screen Sudden Fear (1952), directed by Miller and starring Joan Crawford?!

Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

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An extraordinary film in so many ways. A woman bewitches a man and ruins his life. Or does he destroy hers? She is Gene Tierney, a performer whose legacy is little recognised today but she had a great run in the 1940s. He is Cornel Wilde, a mild presence at best, perfectly suited as the mediocre writer who doesn’t quite know what he’s getting into by marrying a woman whose father he closely resembles. Or does he? She walks out on her fiance, she marries him instead, kills his crippled brother in a scene that remains one of the best ever filmed and then she kills their unborn child and THEN … frames him for her own murder after she discovers his love for her cousin, brought up as her adoptive sister and to whom he has dedicated his latest book. She might be one of the most evil women who ever lived in anyone’s imagination, or one of the most wronged. After all, didn’t he want her as a muse? And then dragged all manner of people into their domestic environment. She says early on, Every book’s a confession. And he is wanting for inspiration. Jo Swerling was enlisted by fabled producer Darryl F. Zanuck to adapt Ben Ames Williams’ bestselling novel which Tierney read and then petitioned for the role. Amazing houses, wonderful cinematography by Leon Shamroy, sublime costuming (Kay Nelson with a helping hand from Oleg Cassini) and effective direction by John M. Stahl, responsible for so many terrific melodramas. This is framed as a film noir with its flashback narration but really belongs in that genre. Tierney is genius.