Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Film: My Cousin Rachel

Daphne Du Maurier
I’d only just read Daphne Du Maurier’s book and really liked it so I looked forward to seeing the movie.

This film has the distinction of not only being the worst adaptation of a novel that I’ve ever seen [for how to make a successful adaptation, see ITV’s Vanity Fair, which was near perfect] but is also one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. To put this in perspective, I’m talking The Killing of a Sacred Deer bad (oh, Nicole! oh, Colin!), I’m talking Wonder Wheel bad (oh, Kate!). It’s as if the director Roger Michel took his script from an abridged edition or perhaps the Cliffs Notes of the novel, and even then one with several random pages torn out, so that the gist and thrust of the narrative are lost.

Because of this, the film version lacks the heart, the logic, the mystery and therefore the believability of the original story.

The Illustrated Mum
Everything Michel adds grates and jangles with inauthenticity, for instance he has someone who is evidently a lady, played with verve by the always excellent Holliday Grainger (I first saw her in the amazing The Illustrated Mum),* talk about dog ‘shit’ when a woman in her position just wouldn’t have. Then we have a servant say of another: ‘You fucking prickwit’. It’s completely unnecessary.

What’s annoying about this is that Du Maurier’s book is full of dialogue and description. In the film, everything is exaggerated and/or conflated till it makes no sense. In the book, Ambrose’s letters disclose the course of his connection with Rachel, with several mentions of the laburnum tree in the courtyard of Rachel’s villa in Italy, under which Ambrose would sit while suffering from some recurring unnamed malady and there are many scenes that show the development of the relationship between Rachel and Philip so that it seems natural.

Everything Michel chooses to omit is vital to any understanding of the story or empathy with the characters, for instance the book conveys the life of Ambrose and Philip as a male idyll, with no real need of a woman’s input, happy and carefree. But Michel barely acknowledges this, having the same actor play both roles, allowing the impression that there was something wrong with their bachelor life before she arrived.

Rachel Weisz
I’m sure Rachel Weisz, who plays the eponymous Rachel can act (she usually can) but she fails to make her Rachel either bewitching or sinister but merely seems a little unhinged, one minute shouting (which doesn’t happen in the novel and is totally out of character), the next seductive. I’m not at all sure about Sam Claflin. He’s incredibly unconvincing as Philip, evincing neither boyish naivety (it comes across as petulance) nor enthusiasm. Together they create a charisma vacuum that sucks the life out of the rest of the film.

The scenes seem to chop and change pointlessly so a single conversation jumps from an interior to two or three exterior shots, giving us the uneasy sensation that the characters are for some reason having the same conversation over and over again in various locales.
Watching the film with the subtitles on makes it seem even sillier as Rachel and Philip are forever ‘chuckling softly’ over nothing. These chuckles are supposed to indicate the characters’ rapprochement but they are without foundation if you leave out the dialogue.
Aidan does it better
There’s an obligatory, shirtless sequence (post-Aidan Turner’s Ross Poldark) that, although it has source in the novel, seems a weird thing to include when you plan to leave out so much else and the cinematography showcases the beautiful Cornish countryside much like Poldark. But one of the BBC series' virtues is that it incorporates a lot of Winston Graham's original dialogue thus we get witty repartee and barbed retorts.

Of course, I completely understand that a film might have to concertina and alter a story a bit (the garden design/landscaping element is left out altogether – that’s fine) for its own purposes but what we’re left with is people behaving really oddly for no apparent reason.

By the end of the novel, the reader is certain that Rachel is poisoning Philip just like she poisoned his cousin, with her eyes firmly fixed on the prize of his inheritance. Michel decides to leave this one absolute open-ended as a ‘did she? didn’t she?’, no doubt to try to pique the viewer’s interest but it turns out to be too little too late.

* A brilliant adaptation itself of Jacqueline Wilson's book, in which all three actresses are outstanding: Alice Connor, Michelle Collins and Holliday Grainger.

For more film reviews, see secretsquirrelsays.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Film: Irene’s Ghost/Iain Cunningham at the London Film Festival

Happy days
Ok I have to admit that when the film started, I had a sinking feeling. Oh no, not one of those documentaries along the lines of Nick Broomfield/Jacques Peretti where there’s a toneless narration by the film-maker/subject, expressing no emotion at all. But this turns out to be a false first impression. Plus I’d expected the film to be American (poor research on my part) because, I’ve worked out, of the image in the programme of the director and his mother in which they both looked perfect and perfectly happy and so rather unBritish. I’m glad I assumed wrong though because I may have felt less intrigued by a British documentary (see above) and chosen something else and it would have been my loss.

Then there’s the initial focus on the adorable poppet of a daughter and the assertion that it was only when Iain Cunningham had his own child that he became determined to unravel the mystery surrounding his mother, Irene. I have a problem with the notion that only when you become a parent do you acquire empathy with, compassion for or curiosity about your own parents.

‘And watching my own child grow through her early years helped me see the impact my loss had on me. A three-year-old has a huge capacity for love.’

This implies he's more concerned with how the loss of his mother affected the child he was, although it's probable she only existed as a vague idea in his head as he was very young when she died, than what caused her disappearance. His father did what he thought was best for both of them at the time, he remarried and his wife, June, became to all intents and purposes, Iain’s mother so let's hear it for June, may she rest in peace.

With these misgivings, it’s remarkable how soon and how easily the film won me round. Here's the trailer.

Iain and his father
Iain starts his brave undertaking by interrogating his relatives, encountering some initial reluctance particularly on the part of his father. Undeterred, he sets about knocking on doors, following clues and meeting his mother’s friends, who share many fond and sometimes quite detailed recollections of Irene and their collective past, for instance, of her sitting on a gate singing ‘King of the Road’ by Roger Miller. Their memories bring her alive. It appears she was well loved and one friend in particular, Lynn, is demonstrably glad of the chance to reminisce about the best friend who no one ever mentions now, who she lost so long ago. There’s a very real sense of sadness and confusion over what happened and why.

The extreme close-ups on the interviewees’ faces mirror and exacerbate for the viewer the discomfort they feel in talking about an awkward subject.

Gradually we come to realise that Irene was hospitalised after the birth of her son, then allowed out for a while (when the gloriously happy picture was taken) then rehospitalised when her illness recurred. There’s an unspoken consensus that it was some physical complication during childbirth that led to Irene’s death, a heavy burden for a child to carry and so a very good reason to keep a secret. Iain gains some insight when he finds his baby book in amongst some old boxes of photos. There are strange scrawlings about God, baby, etc., not exactly the pride and joy a new mother might express. This suggests that there was something awry with Irene’s thought processes.

Lynn and Irene
We learn that when Lynn went to visit Irene in hospital (which she didn’t first time around because she and other friends were led to believe that Irene was in a coma, the truth being unsayable), Irene didn’t recognise her and had started seeing things that weren’t there, becoming paranoid and loud, acting out of character.

Even when Irene is at home, she doesn’t feel the same, saying ‘I’m not Irene, you know, I’m Irene’s ghost.’ And there’s no doubt that to her family she must have seemed like a different person.

As was common in those days, any hint of mental instability was hushed up. It turns out that Irene suffered from post-partum psychosis (as it is called today) that led her to behave in a way that would have been quite frightening to all who knew her.

When the psychosis returned, she was readmitted to hospital and died soon after. Her death certificate records the cause of death as ‘cardiac arrest’. No one seems to question – maybe it’s too difficult (and certainly too late) to consider – whether the electric shock treatment she was given affected her heart.

So Iain’s persistence pays off and the film’s slow reveal helps us to comprehend the true horror of what happened to Irene.

It’s quite probable that Iain’s father felt guilt, fear, confusion and helplessness when faced with something that no one really had any idea about (not even the doctors), that even today carries a stigma, that people felt could (and should) not be talked about.

Symptoms of post-partum psychosis usually start suddenly within the first two weeks after giving birth. More rarely, they can develop several weeks after the baby is born and include hallucinations, delusions, mania, depression, loss of inhibitions, paranoia, restlessness, confusion, out of character behaviour.

BFI London Film Festival 2018
The film, as well as being an investigation into the mystery behind Irene’s death and her complete eradication from their family history, also acts to rehabilitate her memory, so that she can take her place in the lives of her descendants, as a vital, normal, caring young woman who suffered an illness that inevitably hastened her end but need not define her.

Irene's Ghost is profoundly affecting. Many of us were in tears by the end. And you can't say better than that. Art should move you. I hope that the producer, Rebecca Mark-Lawson is able to procure a wider release as this sensitive film raises awareness about a devastating condition that is still not in common parlance. It deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Books: 'Frank: The Voice' and 'Sinatra: The Chairman' by James Kaplan

Frank: The Voice

Anything you’ve ever wanted to know about Frank Sinatra is in these two books ...

I absolutely loved both Frank Sinatra biographies by James Kaplan: Frank: The Voice and Sinatra: The Chairman. Any criticism he expresses is tempered with insight and understanding so although Frank’s behaviour is presented as often bad, it’s interpreted with respect and love for the man and his talent.

First, they are incredibly well written, every word apposite, with none of that almost inevitable repetition you get from inferior biographers.

Second, they’re so meticulously researched that I’m in awe of his skill. Everything is assiduously and entertainingly followed up on, connected with every relevant part or fact or rumour. They really are exhaustive. Because of this, they are huge tomes and will take many hours to read – but they’re worth every minute.

Sinatra: The Chairman
In two pages I learn more about Frank Sinatra than I did from Dylan Jones’s whole book, David Bowie: A Life, which was a particularly one-dimensional affair. See my David Bowie: A Life review.

For instance, although they sound a little like the facts that would be gleaned from a girl’s magazine questioning a teenybopper idol (am I showing my age?), it’s fascinating to me that Frank’s favourite foods (apart from marinara pasta) were cans of franksnbeans or grilled cheese sandwiches. I love this, it shows he didn’t stray far from his roots, that he was more than satisfied with something ordinary that anyone could eat at any time. You can take the boy out of Hoboken … .

And that his favourite colour was orange and his homes, planes (yes, let’s not forget that he was super rich and would think nothing of sending one of these planes to pick up someone he wanted to see at the drop of a hat) were decorated in orange and black.

Here are just four examples of Kaplan's incredible attention to detail and the way he manages to relate and interpolate so many seemingly disparate facts.

Frank and Ava
1. Ava Gardner (the one that got away) had an affair with the director of a film she starred in (Ride, Vaquero!, 1953) while she was married to Frank. The director was John Farrow. A few years down the line Frank married the guy’s daughter, Mia. How’d you like them apples? Not quite instant karma.

2. He reminded me of a fact that I had forgotten, that the Beatles wrote ‘Dear Prudence’ to Mia Farrow’s sister to convince her to leave her room and join them, when they were all in India with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

3. It is pointed out that one of the singing duo, Jan and Dean, Dean Torrence, who later appeared on a bill with Sinatra, was originally charged in the kidnap of Frankie, Jr, Frank’s son.

4. We learn that Sinatra was desperate to play Angelo Maggio in From Here to Eternity (1953) after reading the book by James Jones, before a movie was even dreamt of. He was determined to get this role, sending telegrams and letters to director Fred Zinnemann, begging for the part and signing himself as Maggio. He ended up delivering possibly the performance of his career and winning an Academy Award.

Kaplan's effort is an astonishing, daring and flawless juggling act.
Brad Dexter
Even an aside is delivered with wit and insight. For instance, we learn about an incident when Frank nearly drowned. There’s a difference of opinion over who saved him or even whether he needed saving. One possible rescuer is given as Brad Dexter. Kaplan says he’s the member of The Magnificent Seven (1960), who everyone forgets. Test your friends, he’s right.

It’s as if we’re tracing the patterns of certain threads in a tapestry, from where they end back to where they start or vice versa, everything analysed, examined as one brilliant colour or interesting shape, understood separately, but also as part of the whole glorious picture. Or it’s a patchwork quilt, designed by an artist so that each patch conveys an element of the story. It’s a work that seems effortless but of course isn’t. I have to give Kaplan kudos for making it seem so.

Frank Sinatra, 23, 'iconic mugshot'
There are a couple of very minor errors that I have to point out because I’m an editor by trade. The image on p. 14 of the first volume, of Frank’s first communion, is repeated on p. 66 but captioned the ‘iconic mugshot’, supposedly taken when young Frank was arrested (for seduction no less). Plus he loses a couple of points for ‘iconic’, the most overused word in the English language. I can't remember the number of times I’ve exclaimed to the TV when they use the phrase, which seems to be daily, ‘iconic image’, ‘AN ICON IS AN IMAGE!’

James Kaplan
Also, the subtitle for the first volume, Frank is different on the title page to the jacket. The Making of a Legend vs The Voice.

But, if you're at all interested in Sinatra, you must read these books - they will fuel your fascination and satisfy your curiosity. 

For more on Sinatra, see Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.