“My Cousin Rachel” (2017)

Not everyone remembers the first film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic novel “My Cousin Rachel” (1952), but it was Richard Burton’s first Oscar nomination. His last line, “Rachel, my torment”, made young girls wish they could elicit such power and passion.

Here, Sam Claflin plays a seemingly younger, more naive lover. A couple of scenes are almost smirk producing! Obsessive love merges with mystery and mistaken perception to give one an “Sense Of An Ending” jolt. In fact, these two based-on-book films would be fun to compare.

Du Maurier’s setting is 19th century Cornwall with its rocky cliffs, foamy seascapes, cantering horses and rumbling carriages. Her tenth novel,” My Cousin Rachel, published in the summer of 1951, uses the traditional Irish wolf hounds, the sunshine curse miasma and the stock romance elements to beautiful effect.

Philip Ashley is the 23-year-old narrator, the orphan and nephew of Ambroise Ashley. His beloved uncle writes Philip a letter imploring him to come to his rescue. His young wife,Rachel, is poisoning him, watching him like a hawk; and he fears for his sanity. He has fevers, headaches, and is light-sensitive. Ambroise distrusts his doctor, and piteously entreats Phillip: ” For God’s sake, come quickly!”.

When Phillip arrives at the villa, Dr. Gamboli intones, ” I have been expecting you. He is dead.” Phillip is to inherit the entire estate. Rachel has left for London, but weeks later will return with the storm. The dogs follow her upstairs and her commanding presence takes charge. Phillip attempts to confront her, but his anxious rapping on her door leaves her offering him tea. Her charms beguile even in her black mourning veil. He later tells her: “You are not the woman I hated.” Besotted, he gives her family pearls and increases her allowance. We hear servant whispers and rumors of a duel in her past between husband and lover, unbridled extravagance, and limitless appetite. Rachel Weisz seems born to play her namesake. She captures just the right winsome smiles and stoney eye glints.

The cinematography of Mike Eley is as memorable as any gothic romance filmed. Cliff falls, pearl cascading close-ups, make him a master of premonition. One of the most lovely scenes, features Phillip and Rachel’s romantic romp in a bed of bluebells. She is disinterested, he sated. There are alleyways with woman plucking chickens, candle lighted bedroom scenes, and ominous cliff paths to enjoy.

Director Roger Michell will undoubtably send viewers back to the author of ” The Birds” and may even have viewers purchasing ” Manderley Forever”: A Biography of Daphne Du Maurier by Tatiana De Rosnay translated into English this year. I could see this film again. One just wants more.

“Denial”

In “Denial” (2016), David Hare has written the type of courthouse screenplay that I love: dialogue dense, dualistic, and inspirational. The cross-examination is biting and the litigator is crafty and skilled. Tom Wilkinson is the trial lawyer you will come to love. Atticus Finch may even come to mind, but Wilkinson’s  British character develops more slowly. In one sequence as barrister Richard Rampton, he comes off a tad disrespectful when he steps on a segment of barbed wire at Auschwitz, and emotes with “shit” at the shrine. That same barbed wire section becomes a symbol for the small part he will play in honoring Holocaust victims by not putting them on trial. One pricked sole does not equate with  the mounds of broken shoes left by the gassed souls of millions.

As a respected libel attorney, Rampton must keep his American client apprised of British law, where you are guilty until proven innocent. The renown American Jewish scholar, Deborah Lipstadt, has called Holocaust denier and Hitler’s apologist David Irving a name or two. Now, accused of libel, she must prove her name-calling truth.

And what  an uplift to see a polished, erudite woman,  ( Rachel Weisz ) after my last review where emotionally stunted woman fill the screen! At one point, she refuses to bow to the magistrate: ” I’m an American.” This Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies blanches in horror when her accuser pontificates that ” to be called a ‘denier’ is a verbal Yellow Star.”

In “Denial” the British Weisz is the epitome of the righteous American with her  New York accent and her combative stance. Her assuredness, her spunk , and her passion light-up the screen. The occasional glimpse of hubris is welcomed in this Emory University academic and author. It makes the audience understand how difficult it was for her to “stand down” and let her legal team lead and strategize.  She must deny her wish to publicly confront the anti-Semite in court. Here the film’s title becomes a double-edged sword.

Her nemesis and the Brit who sued Lipstadt for libel is  David Irving ( Tim Spall). Spall is grand at playing flawed individuals, whose hubris attributes to their fall. He shows a range of human emotions, yet his anti-Semitic beliefs stun us years after Hitler. As “a falsifier of history”, he is dangerous.

Wilkerson, as the Queen’s Counsel (QC) , does not want his defendant to testify. “We want to starve him ( Irving); you (testifying ) would feed him.” Lipstadt’s emotional satisfaction in debunking him must be stayed to win the case. She reluctantly plays with the team, and sees Rampton no longer as rude and heartless, but as a disciplined winner. In a lovely moment, Lipstadt states,” I have handed over my conscience to you- a Scottish, wine-drinking fisherman.”

The defense team manipulates a No-jury trial.  Rampton uses Irving’s pride with the rhetorical remark:” Can you ( Irving) expect the jurors to learn all you know- all you have spent a lifetime learning?!”

On April 11, 2011, the thirty-two day trial ends with a three-hundred -plus paged verdict. Here, I noted one production mistake: the British magistrate misspelled ” judgement” as the American “judgment” ~ a minor flaw that only an English teacher would see, but the  “tea and biscuit lord”  would never use the American spelling of “judgment”.

The sequences at Auschwitz are both aerial and immediate. Crematorium #2 is haunting and hallowed. We are emerced in roof holes and floor drains, and Nazi logistics, and cyanide crystals. Director Mick Jackson keeps the pace both suspenseful and thoughtful, not an easy task. I especially liked the hazy pictures of vaguely moving human forms in the clouds as  Jewish prayers are recited.

See a true story on the big screen with nods to fact-checking and our current political  lying scene. See how diary-keeping has its minuses, and  meet Anthony Julius ( Andrew Scott ), Princess Diana’s divorce attorney. But, most of all, see David Irving, provocateur and lover of Hitler  never get  to put the Holocaust on trial, nor legitimize himself because of able trial lawyers. Litigators of the world, take notes.

“The Light Between The Oceans”

 

Based on M.L. Stedman’s first novel published in 2012, the film version of “The Light Between Oceans” is a visual montage of loss and locale. The sound of surf and wind become like Fate, something that can sweep one away or drive one home. Director/writer Derek Cianfrance of “Blue Valentine” ( 2010)  fame seems to know what passion children can spark in us.

Supply boats come once a season to the lighthouse at Janus Rock. Visits to the Mainland of Australia, while a day away, are granted only every other year. In this semi-isolation, Tom Sherbourne ( Michael Fassbender) nurses his  World War I secrets of the Western Front and becomes the wary keeper of his young family’s secrets as well~ at least for a time.

Oscar nominees, Fassbender for “Steve Jobs” and  Alicia Vikander for ” The Danish Girl” are great actors. Add Rachel Weisz ( The Constant Gardener , 2005 and ” The Lobster” , 2016) ,and we have an exquisite cast. Stoic dignity, fresh vivaciousness and heart-rending  grief are all on operatic display. A baby is lost, a baby is found and a baby is lost again. Roiling emotions and the roiling sea are joined. Trauma is everywhere. (Even viscerally shown in the many limbless men returning from war in 1918. ) Steam engines puff on land and on sea and cinematographer Adam Arkapew captures all close and wide. Women’s grief -paralyzed faces hug the soil and blades of grass look like sharp nails accentuating their pain.

“The Light Between Oceans” is a morality tale. Isabelle and Tom are oceans apart. Isabelle is more selfish,  aggressively goal-centered. She proposes to Tom. As one character offers, “There are not many men on the market these days.” She has picked Tom before their picnic date!

Isabelle has lost two brothers to war. A premonition is stated in her sorrow for her parents: ( one of the times she thinks of others) ” There is no special name for a parent who loses a child~ not like “widow”.

Tom does not act swiftly. His feet are numb, ” stuck in frozen war mud”. When asked about his up-bringing, he states that ” sometimes it is best to leave the past in the past.” When he takes his bride to Janus Rock, he explains the two-faces torn between two ways of seeing things~ two different oceans.

After two miscarriages and a depression that is not really addressed in the screenplay, Isabelle hears a baby wailing in a flailing row boat. Tom rushes to the sea to find the father dead and the infant in need of the basics. Tom wishes to do his job and report the findings straight away, but Isabelle sees a chance for immediate gratification.

“Being mindful of the needs of others” takes on a different meaning for Tom once he sees the birth mother (Rachel Weisz) grieving in the church cemetery. The rest of the tragic tale plays out with the exquisite toddler ( Florence Clery) being one of  the most natural child actors I have seen.

The flashbacks of Hannah (Weisz) and Frank, her German husband, are meant to even the emotional score, but Vikander and Fassbender have already won our hearts.  We know Tom is right. Lucy Grace will understand the sacrifice.

The picture ‘s downside is that sea wind and sea surf are so deafening that a few snippets of  dialogue are lost, but it is an epic tale that shows the awful sides of revenge when one feels one has been betrayed. But “to thy own self be true and then thou can’st not  be false to any man” seems to be the moral.

Alexandre Desplat’s original  score, too,  is epic. “Gone With The Wind” comes to mind. Every emotion is underscored. This is a period piece that throws us back to another time, but the screenplay also pushes us to return to the novel to capture lines like “he ( Tom) struggles to make sense of it-all this love, so bent out of shape, refracted, like light through the lens.” Read the book, then see the film !

 

“The Lobster”

The initial shot tells us to watch for determined meanness. Who would shoot a grazing donkey amidst its family  in a place as peacefully idyllic as Connemara?  Whether we are really in County Galway does not really matter, but the upscale Cashel House-like environs sets up a bizarre idea where people who can not successfully find a mate get a last chance to do so before they lose their humanity and are turned into the animal of their choosing. The premise being that one may have a better chance at the mating game as another species.

A voice over narrative introduces us to  David   (Colin Farrell ) and his personal history. He was married eleven years then  divorced. His brother has been here before him, but he did not find his soul mate and chose to become a dog.   David  brings his bro, now a canine with him. Neither fair well.

The writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos has been praised for “The Lobster”. Critics speak of the forty-three-year-old  as a  creative fabulist, but the lengendary Greek Aesop he is not. His  film’s open-ending is too ambiguous to give any declamation. Is romantic love a lie ?  Is it delusional to think that everyone must have a life partner ?

The worst proclamation comes as partnering ” matchy matchy” traits. Whatever happened to the old saw that opposites attract?  In ” The Lobster” there is no randomness of encounter. People with limps  and lisps are foisted together. The biscuit lady, the heartless woman, the ugly man, the bleeding-nose woman~ all have their flaws. While this can be humorous in a juvenile way, these pairings are never the basis for life-long commitment. When marriage is modeled, the hotel manager’s husband is willing  to shoot his wife rather than protecting her by giving his own.

One of the funniest parts of “The Lobster” was the hotel entertainment masking the instructional message. With subtitles like ” Man Eats Alone” versus ” Man Eats With Woman” , and “Woman Walks Alone” and ” Woman Walks With Man”, we get cliched warnings that look more absurd than commonsensical .  Our narrator, who turns out to be the short-sighted woman ( Rachel Weisz), uses the “she then told him” to hysterical effect. We have shimmering back strokes mixed with urban legends ,and rules  against masterbation and punishments like placing the offending hand into a hot toaster slat. On the last day, day 45, you are allowed to choose whatever you wish to do, but you are instructed to choose something an animal can not do.

Offbeat  and  creative, but rather lazy , writer  Lanthimos demands that the viewer do too much work. Yes, society places lots of pressure for people to pair up. And it is funny that this dystopian future tries to control the uncontrollable : one has a mere 45 days to hook-up permanently! But the ending is baffling. Does David use a steak knife to dislodge his eyeballs ? Does the now  sightless Rachel Weisz, previously the “short-sighted woman”, wait through endless refillings of her water glass? Does David come crawling back to the booth ? Does romantic love demand this self- multilation?  What does Lanthimos think ? He doesn’t bother to tell us.

The most understated acting or breathing I have ever seen in  Farrell. Lea Seydoux, as the loner rebel leader, and Rachel Weisz, as David ‘s rabbit eating girl friend seem to understand  their part in this half comedy half diatribe. I enjoyed catching glimpses of camels and gorillas walking through the forest, but winced at the dog and rabbit violence. The script was terribly fragmented and metaphors like digging your own grave made sense only if the premise is it is better to die than resort to  the bogus matching of traits. Cover yourself with soil ,dance in the woods alone, or kill whomever will be able to live better alone? I don’t like being given an assignment to figure out what the director ‘s intention is, and I have enough to think about without thinking of having a hot-boiled egg placed in my arm pit.

“Youth”

“Youth” the Italian Paolo Sorrentino film is not for everyone.
If one likes philosophy and art and the ruminations of two eighty-year-old friends meeting the finality of life then block out two and a half hours to enjoy their findings.

As prep, one might begin with Novalis,the German Romantic philosopher.Georg Phillipp Friedrich Von Hardenberg (1772-1801),his given name, is mentioned in the film. He believed that “whoever knows what philosophizing is, also knows what life is”. Art is the privileged medium through which self-reflection or Bildung is achieved.

In “Youth”, sixty years of friendship encase Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). Fred is an accomplished symphonic conductor and Mick is a film director. Fred’s daughter Leda (Rachael Weisz) is married to Julian, Mick’s son. This does not seem to complicate their friendship even though Julian is leaving Leda for pop singer Paloma Faith. At the center of their art is the privileged locale where they have been vacationing with other celebrities for years. The Swiss spa gives the camera plenty of opportunities to film the naked body in all its machinations. And we are reminded if we needed to be that men never outgrow the desire to ogle and sigh at what they may have missed. An ongoing joke always seems to swim to the surface. Fred wishes to know if Mick slept with Gilda Black, a girl they were both in love with. Mick who has been evasive for years sadly states ” the real tragedy is that I can’t even remember.”

The memories, desires, and regrets of these terry-robed bodies are ensconced in music of all kinds: off-key pop, operatic arias and Eastern guitar included. Mick ‘s script titled “Life’s Last Day” somehow meshes with their talk of prostrate problems, urine volumes and Miss Universe coming for a spa stay. Mick boasts that he knows everything there is to know about love. Fred tips his cup and says ” You and I have the same problem. We allowed ourselves to give in to a moment of levity. Levity is a perversion.” Caine’s sad eyes hold a secret amid the towel origami, the massages, the steam room and the sauna. His wife, his soprano muse, is senile and being housed in Venice. When he does decide to bring her flowers and visit after ten years, we are aghast at the contorted and vacant face. The camera lingers long enough to be ghoulish.

Two of “Youth”‘s best sequences have both orchestra conductor and film director alone in nature. Michael Caine directing from a stump and flicking his wrist to modulate cow moos, cow bells and birds flapping in flight is magical. Music and silence soar. When Fred’s daughter accuses him of giving everything to his music, we understand why and downplay the resentment. Like the stream of men and women who loved him and forgave him, we do, too.

Mick’s nature scene has us in a field off the roadside. He is amazed to see all of his leading ladies in costume reciting his memorable lines. He spins like Julie Andrew’s Maria! We are entranced,too.

An allegory on aging “Youth” could be. Ballinger’s “you eliminate one person and the whole world changes” could be an ironic comment to Queen Elizabeth demanding him to play at Prince Phillip’s birthday celebration. His personal wish is to never play his “Simple Songs” without his “not here” wife. He reneges in the end to the emissary’s persistence, and we have a glorious ending where symphonic sound engages all our own emotions on time and its passing changes.

A literature colleague and neighbor who sees lots of film,
told me not to miss this film. There certainly is a lot to think about beyond the empty rocking chairs. I have not even mentioned Paul Dano or Jane Fonda (whose part I did not like). Did she commit suicide on the plane? There was blood. And Dano’s addition of artistic souls connecting and being misunderstood was like the autograph grabbers-an injection for the apathetic. Crowds can be demanding, but they are also laudatory. When Fred says “music is all I understand, we don’t believe him.” When he says “I composed it while I still loved”, we do.

There are at least six times my seat mates and I thought the movie was ending. The monk in levitation, finally, was one. Images are touched longingly by the camera. We think there is nothing more to see; and then, like life, we want more. There are lots of starts and stops. The symbolic periscope tells us that “everything seems close when we are young, like the future. And everything seems faraway for the old, like the past.” Whether we are kicking a tennis ball into the clouds or rock climbing like Luka the Mountaineer,or finding ourselves amongst cuckoo clocks or Queen Anne’s lace, we are all going home. Stay for the credits and enjoy a litany of emotions. Decide on picking up “the scent of freedom” or believing “that we are all just extra platitudes”. Sorrentino gives as a jumble of homage and jest.