My Cousin Rachel (2017) review: Weisz impresses in Du Maurier’s classic ‘Did she or didn’t she?’

Film

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Director:  Roger Michell Writers:  Daphne Du Maurier (novel), Roger Michell (adaptation) Starring: Rachel WeiszSam ClaflinHolliday Grainger

Synopsis: “The story of a young Englishman, Philip (Claflin) who plots revenge against his mysterious, beautiful cousin, Rachel (Weisz), believing that she murdered his guardian. But his feelings become complicated as he finds himself falling under the beguiling spell of her charms.”

The director of Notting Hill brings us this fresh take on Daphne Du Maurier’s dark thriller My Cousin Rachel. The book had previously been brought to life in 1952, just a year after the publication of the source novel, in a lavish affair starring Richard Burton and Olivia De Havilland which, while not quite reaching the heights of fame of other Du Maurier adaptations Rebecca and Don’t Look Now, was considered a cinematic success and was nominated for 4 academy awards. To attempt another adaptation could be seen as a bold move, but Michell and team do bring a breath of fresh air to the story.

The story itself is not so much of a whodunnit, but rather a ‘did she do it?’ as we take Philip’s perspective in attempting to unravel the true story of his guardian’s death.

During the early scenes of the film we only hear about the mysterious Rachel through letters and gossip, she comes into Philip’s life not with the bang and confrontation he had been expecting, but with an understated entrance that means our first view of her is silhouetted against the moon, her back to a window. Rather than the monster we are led to expect, Rachel is quiet, funny and warm, with the household’s army of dogs following her about loyally from the moment she arrives.

As Philip’s infatuation grows, Rachel remains a mystery. She seems genuine in her affections for her departed husband Ambrose (the ‘great family resemblance’ is achieved by Claflin playing both roles) but why does she keep plying Philip with that odd herbal tea…?

Weisz plays Rachel with great skill, with Michell seeming to lead our expectations one way as a single glance leads us another. Rachel seems decidedly modern and at odds with the stifling societal expectations exhibited by all those around her. Indeed the fact that she is a woman ‘of appetites’ is whispered knowingly by several of the supporting cast. However Weisz ensures Rachel flits between being charming and likeable then cold and standoffish, just enough to keep us asking ourselves if she could really be capable of murder.

Claflin plays Philip every inch as the ‘wet-nosed- puppy’ Rachel describes him, which does become grating at times. Seeing the world through Philip’s eyes is a somewhat disarming and claustrophobic experience, with the view sometimes becoming as blank and shallow as he seems.

Philip’s lack of experience with women is referenced several times, and indeed the view of Rachel we are given is one buried beneath his own misunderstanding and confusion, alongside a burning attraction and fascination. The whole film could be seen as a giant metaphor for modern cinema, as we struggle along with an old-fashioned male gaze trying to depict highly complex modern womanhood.

While the longing glances and candlelit encounters increase, the orchestral score swells, keeping true to the genre. Other melodramatic tropes abound, from the waves crashing on the shore to the string of pearls breaking and scattering down the stairs.

The film may seem a little slow for some tastes, but the many threads of the story are drawn together in a deft web for the final act. Audiences have been discussing their view of Rachel for over 50 years, and this won’t change that, but ultimately My Cousin Rachel is a well-made period melodrama with an interesting modern twist.

7 out of 10

 

 

 

Bojack Horseman Season 3 (2016): In praise of the bravest and most original satire on TV (SPOILERS)

TV

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Netflix’ original output has just been getting better and better of late.

The internet has been obsessed with the John Carpenter-and-Stephen-King-esque homage to all things 80’s Stranger Things since it’s release two weeks ago, and yes, it’s fantastic, but I wanted to talk about something which has a deeper meaning and is a truly important cultural text: a show about a talking horse.

Bojack Horseman may seem like an unlikely political hero, but season 3 of the show has upped the ante in terms of originality and social commentary, while still maintaining it’s hefty emotional clout.

Bojack remains a horse haunted by his demons, tackling his own mental illness and childhood trauma while struggling to maintain fully functioning adult relationships. His character is so well-drawn it is sometimes easy to forget you’re watching an animated equine, as he gets drawn into darker territory and more self-destructive behaviour as he tries to avoid intimacy and, in turn, rejection.

The whole cast of characters are beautifully drawn, from Alison Brie’s depressed activist and social media  manager Diane, to Aaron Paul’s potentially asexual slacker Todd, the Hollywoo universe is full of a rich vein of drama to mine.

It is often said that you can get away with far more in animation than you can with live action, and season 3 of Bojack Horseman pushes this to the limit. Covering topics from murder, drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, feminism and abortion, Bob Waksberg and team are unflinchingly reflecting modern society in a technicolour world.

Resolutely story-driven, the comedy is almost an after-thought, but it is also supremely dark in it’s humour. In possibly the most controversy-baiting episode, ‘Brrap Brrap Pew Pew’, we follow Diane and her husband, loveable canine Mr Peanut Butter, as they decide to have an abortion. After accidentally tweeting out from one of her social media clients accounts that she’s having an abortion, said star Sextina Aquafina decides to embrace her new-found status as an empowered pro-life icon and releases a hugely ill-advised music video about murdering embryos with guns.

“Is Twitter an appropriate forum to be discussing a sensitive issue like abortion? Wouldn’t a better forum be…nowhere?” TV News-whale Tom

Setting aside any concept of political correctness, the episode encourages open, honest discussion in a time when some topics are seen as off the table, even for hard-hitting drama.

“Has the concept of women having choices gone too far? We’ve assembled this diverse panel of white men in bow ties to discuss the issue”- TV news-whale Tom, hitting the nail on the head.

The rest of the episode packs in ideas about celebrity culture, a woman’s right to choose, freedom of speech and some fairly emotionally devastating moments into 25 minutes of beautifully written and acted TV (and also shoe horns in some digs at Jurj Clooners).

Episode 4, ‘Fish out of water’ is almost entirely silent, following Bojack as he visits the Pacific Ocean. In the finest tradition of silent acting, the episode is by turns slapstick and heart-breaking, as Bojack finds himself responsible for the welfare of an orphaned seahorse. You wouldn’t get that on The Big Bang Theory.

Overall the season is hugely melancholy, as we watch Bojack spiral downwards into depression and self-destructive behaviour, with the kind of story arc that Breaking Bad would have been proud of. Even when one of Bojack’s oldest friends dies from a drug overdose the show manages to find the humour in the darkness.

Will Arnett is incredible as Bojack, bringing the warmth and charisma needed to balance out a character who could have been inherently unlikeable. Instead we find ourselves rooting for Bojack and hoping he can let his guard down enough to stop his pattern of self-destruction.

The joy of streaming services producing comedy is that they don’t have to cater to the mainstream, and they can make genuinely daring and ground-breaking shows, unfettered by worries of alienating advertisers. Bojack Horseman continues to be a shining example of this, a show that is daring, brave, funny and leaves you wondering why more of what we see on screens large and small isn’t as honest as this.

Ex_Machina (2015) : Blurred lines and the God complex

Film

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Directed by: Alex Garland Written by:Alex Garland Starring:Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac

The blurb says: “Alex Garland, writer of 28 Days Later and Sunshine, makes his directorial debut with the stylish and cerebral thriller, EX MACHINA. Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer at an internet-search giant, wins a competition to spend a week at the private mountain estate of the company’s brilliant and reclusive CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Upon his arrival, Caleb learns that Nathan has chosen him to be the human component in a Turing Test-charging him with evaluating the capabilities, and ultimately the consciousness, of Nathan’s latest experiment in artificial intelligence. That experiment is Ava (Alicia Vikander), a breathtaking A.I. whose emotional intelligence proves more sophisticated- and more deceptive- than the two men could have imagined.”

Alex Garland first came to the world’s attention with the publication of his debut novel, The Beach, a tale of natural paradise wrought to hell by the influence of man.  He soon turned his hand to the more visual medium of film, writing the screenplay for the superb 28 Days Later,  a tale of mankind being brought to its knees by our interference in the natural world. Ex Machina follows firmly in the footsteps on this path of ideas (following Sunshine, Never Let Me Go and Dredd), asking some complex questions about the very essence of human nature and the battle between nature and the constructed world.

Ex Machina is a beautifully crafted, intelligent science-fiction tale bringing to mind Blade Runner, Under the Skin or Her (but without the saccharine twee-ness of the latter). It is cleanly designed, stark and at times extremely shocking, but will leave a lasting emotional impression on you despite the austerity.

The cast are all fantastic. Alicia Vikander is just perfect in the role of Ava, her performance combining with Garland’s direction to draw you in as she does Caleb. Her subtle tilts of the head and inquisitive glances fall somewhere between Disney princess and assembly line robot, which is surely not an easy line to tread. Oscar Isaac brings balance to the character of Nathan Bateman (what is it with those Batemans?) who could easily have become a cartoon villain. Instead he paints him as someone who has been corrupted by money and power, having lost touch with what it is to be human. Domhnall Gleeson also shines as Caleb, who firmly fills the role of the viewer for much of the film, with us joining him as he makes new discoveries about Bateman and Ava. We begin to ask ourselves the same questions he does, which leads us to a surprising, and shocking ending.

Set largely in Bateman’s underground bunker the film feels intensely claustrophobic, with only occasional glimpses outside the strictly structured, dark world into the light and chaos of the woods and rivers beyond. Ava’s design has obviously been very carefully considered, a fact that is discussed as part of the plot, but was obviously foremost in the film-makers minds too. She is reminiscent of many screen robots that have come before her (Sonny from I, Robot, Bjork/Chris Cunningham’s ‘All is Full of Love‘ and even Maria from Metropolis), but through Vikander’s performance Ava feels utterly unique.

The carefully structured visual look of the film is heightened by Geoff Barrow (Portishead) and Ben Salisbury‘s terrific score, which is by turns menacing and delicate (the film also plays out with the brilliant ‘Husbands’ by Savages).

Despite the serious subject matter and big questions the film asks it also has it’s funny moments, with some genuine laughs coming in the first half of the film as Nathan and Caleb get to know one another. There is also a surprising scene in Nathan’s lounge towards the film’s conclusion, which could have thrown the film completely off-kilter, but instead cements aspects of Nathan’s character while giving the audience a few WTF-induced giggles.

The sexuality of the A.I. is an issue for the film, and one it doesn’t shy away from. Nathan and Caleb discuss the fact that Ava has been given a gender and capacity for sexuality, although it becomes clear there is more to this than Nathan admits. Women could be seen as being sidelined in the film, merely subjects of sexual desire to be used, manipulated and gazed upon, were it not for THAT ending.

Like Ava herself, Ex Machina looks beautiful but is far more complex than you first imagine. A fabulous directorial debut with stunning performances and a great soundtrack which leaves you asking big questions around what it means to be human, and what it means to love.

 8 out of 10