Film reviews round-up: My Cousin Rachel, Norman, Wilson, The Shack

A Gothic classic comes to screen, Richard Gere makes for a charming ‘fixer’, Daniel Clowes gets another graphic novel adapted, and Octavia Spencer plays God

Geoffrey Macnab@TheIndyFilm
Wednesday 07 June 2017 12:41
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In the name of love: Rachel Weisz plays her manipulative namesake in ‘My Cousin Rachel’
In the name of love: Rachel Weisz plays her manipulative namesake in ‘My Cousin Rachel’

My Cousin Rachel (12A)

★★★☆☆

Roger Michell, 105 mins, starring: Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin, Holliday Grainger, Iain Glen

It helps to do your due diligence and to ask around a bit. This sobering thought can’t help but spring to mind as we witness the extraordinarily chumpish behaviour of Philip (Sam Claflin) in Roger Michell’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel.

Don’t blame love. Don’t blame erotic obsession. If Philip had either the slightest bit of common sense or the ability to carry out the most basic detective work, he could easily have avoided the romantic pickle that he lands himself in face-first during the film. Then, though, there wouldn’t have been much of a story. This is an enjoyable film but a deeply contrived one which only works plot-wise because of Philip’s Titanic-like insistence in heading straight for the iceberg.

The voiceover from Philip which opens and closes the film has a sourness and knowing quality but Philip himself is naive in the extreme. The setting is somewhere on the Cornish coast during the mid-19th century. Philip, orphaned as a child, has been brought up by his cousin, wealthy landowner Ambrose.

He lives a very laddish, outdoors existence. There’s no mother to supervise him and we’re told more than once that he knows “nothing of women”. Ambrose’s health has been failing and he has been away in the sun in Florence where he has encountered another cousin, the bewitching Rachel (Rachel Weisz).

His letters home portray her initially as “radiant” and “good” but then their tone changes. Ambrose writes about Rachel watching him like a hawk and hints that she has been poisoning him. By the time Philip travels to the continent to work out what is going on, it is already too late. Ambrose is dead.

Philip’s extreme hostility to Rachel lasts until the first moment he sets eyes on her. Michell gives Weisz a great entrance. She is seen dressed all in black standing in front of a window in the moonlight and looking like a femme fatale in a film noir.

My Cousin Rachel - Trailer 2

Once he has established that she doesn’t have a wooden leg, a moustache, or a wart on her nose, Philip is utterly besotted. The thought that she might want to steal the family estate away doesn’t appear to cross his mind. He won’t heed the advice of his godfather Kendall (Iain Glen) or of Kendall’s daughter Louise (Holliday Grainger), to whom he had previously been devoted.

She warns him how easy it is for Rachel to “twist” him “round her little finger” but he is already far too busy giving Rachel all the family jewellery and possessions to play the blindest bit of attention.

My Cousin Rachel is a hard film to categorise. At times, it is like a twisted reflection of Hitchcock’s Du Maurier adaptation, Rebecca. The innocent here is the man, not the young woman played by Joan Fontaine who becomes the second wife of Maxim de Winter (and is haunted throughout by the shadow of the first wife). Michell plays up both the melodramatic elements and the Gothic side of the storytelling.

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Weisz gives a subtle and well-judged performance as the object of Philip’s obsession – and his potential nemesis. She realises that reticence is the key. If she is too obviously the villainess, the film’s spell will be broken. We see her as he does. She’s glamorous but wholly inscrutable.

The film creates a very ambiguous atmosphere in which her motives are well-nigh impossible to surmise. If she accepts a gift of a pearl necklace, that may be a sign of her greed and covetousness – but if she gives the pearl necklace back, that could be a double bluff. If she tends Philip when he’s sick and makes potions for him, she could be trying to poison him – or she could be doing her best to nurse him back to health.

She’s described at one stage as being guilty of “unbridled extravagance and unlimited appetite” but the image she presents to Philip is on the austere side. She’s a widow. She dresses in black. There is one revealing scene when the two are making love in the woods.

As he huffs and puffs on top of her, she is shown looking skyward, a distracted expression on her face. Again, this expression is hard to read. It could be boredom or calculation we see in her features or perhaps the realisation that she has allowed herself to become entangled with an inexperienced “boy” who may not have the wherewithal to satisfy her either physically or intellectually.

Writer-director Michell tells an at times overheated story in a cool and stylish way. The early scenes, in which he deals with Philip’s childhood and Ambrose’s Italian misadventures in only a few minutes of screen time, are a model of concision and compression. The lovingly detailed rustic interludes – the Christmas feast or shots of Claflin scything the fields – rekindle memories of the John Schlesinger version of Far From The Madding Crowd.

There are some fine character performances too, notably from Simon Russell Beale as a very fussy and conscientious lawyer (“That’s my job, to stickle”) and from Iain Glen as Philip’s seemingly devoted and solicitous guardian. What is missing here, though, is the rawness and emotional viciousness found in William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth.

My Cousin Rachel just a little too glossy and Claflin’s Philip is so puppyish in his devotion to his cousin (or his lust for her) that he always risks seeming more of a ridiculous figure than a tragic one.

Norman: The Moderate Rise And Tragic Fall Of A New York Fixer (15)

★★★★☆

Joseph Cedar, 118 mins, starring: Richard Gere, Lior Ashkenazi, Michael Sheen, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Steve Buscemi

Writer-director Joseph Cedar’s latest feature is subtle, surprising and does a fine job of combining pathos, gentle, character-based comedy and political satire. It’s the story of Norman Oppenheimer (Richard Gere), a small-time and very “shady Jewish macher” as he is described at one stage.

Based in New York, Norman is a “fixer”: he introduces politicians and business people to one another and tries to insert himself into their lives. He is well used to humiliation. Everyone tries to brush him off. “You’re like a drowning man trying to wave at an ocean liner,” he is told. Typically, he turns the remark into a compliment. “But I am good swimmer,” he protests.

In the course of the film, Norman elicits our pity, our disdain and also, against the odds, our sympathy. Gere plays him beautifully, capturing his neediness, his perseverance and his strange innocence. (At times, the performance rekindles memories of Peter Sellers as the gardener turned politician in Being There.)

The scene in which he comes together with Israeli deputy minister of trade and labour, Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi), is very cleverly observed. As ever, Norman is desperate to ingratiate himself. He buys the politician a pair of very expensive shoes. This is his “foot in the door”.

Norman: The Moderate Rise And Tragic Fall Of A New York Fixer - Trailer

As Eshel’s career takes off, the politician (now prime minister) remembers Norman. “He helps the lump in my chest disappear,’ Eshel says of Norman’s unlikely ability to relieve the stress in others, even as he piles it on himself. Norman makes promises which generally he can’t deliver on. With Eshel’s patronage, he briefly becomes a man of real influence – but he is also quickly and unwittingly involved in a full-blown political scandal.

Cedar has a fine cast – Steve Buscemi as a Rabbi, Michael Sheen as a lobbyist, Charlotte Gainsbourg as an anti-corruption lawyer, Ashkenazi as the politician – but the actors here are foils to Gere’s Norman. He is in virtually every scene and he is always the one making the running.

The film is full of ironies. Norman is supposedly the hustler but he has reserves of loyalty and decency that his would-be clients lack. He is either mendacious or delusional or both, claiming friendships that don’t exist. Nonetheless, when he is thrown out of a dinner party that he has gatecrashed (“you just can’t walk in and sit at my table”), he somehow retains his dignity.

He is ready to field calls from important contacts on his mobile phone. Even if he is lying in the rubbish or sitting alone in the bus station, he’ll make it seem that he is in his office or at an important function. He always wants to help – to raise money to keep his local synagogue open or to peddle influence to get a friend’s son into an Ivy League college.

We’re in a cut-throat world of politics and schmoozing but the wistful music and playful chapter titles give the film the feel of a folk tale or of a slightly darker version of a Woody Allen comedy.

Wilson (15)

★★★☆☆

Craig Johnson, 92 mins, starring: Woody Harrelson, Laura Dern, Isabella Amara, Judy Greer

This is a film that, like its central character, steadily grows on you. Wilson (Woody Harrelson) is a curmudgeonly, foul-mouthed, middle-aged misanthrope who makes such a bad first impression that the prospect of an entire movie about him seems a test of endurance. Everything about him is sour in the extreme. His wife left him 17 years before. His father is dying. He lives on his own, with his pet dog for company.

Wilson is based on the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes (who also wrote the screenplay). Some of the humour here is very cruel in a deadpan way reminiscent of Todd Solondz’s equally barbed comedies about dysfunctional families. Wilson taunts other dog lovers and is endlessly sarcastic about anyone who is religious or materialistic or is even slightly more idealistic than he is.

Wilson - Official Red Band Trailer

He mocks others for no reason. He is so nihilistic that nothing whatsoever seems to give him pleasure. Nonetheless, when he is reunited with his wife (Laura Dern) and learns that she didn’t abort their child after all, the film changes tone. Against the odds, Wilson becomes a bit of a hero. He is fighting as best as he can to overcome his own immense, residual reserves of cynicism, to connect with his family and to make sense of his life.

What’s admirable about Harrelson’s performance is that he does nothing to make his character ingratiating. He doesn’t ask for pity. Gradually, we begin to feel it for him anyway. There are some very funny moments here – Dern’s catfight with her disapproving and very bourgeois sister, Wilson’s misadventures in prison – and there’s also pathos in the film’s depiction of Wilson’s relationship with his brattish, bullied teenage daughter (Isabella Amara).

She has been brought up by foster parents in very affluent circumstances but is almost as unhappy as her father and shares his worm eye view of the world as well as his love of expletives.

Director Craig Johnson (who also dealt with middle-aged angst in his previous film, The Skeleton Twins) has a nicely matter of fact way of showing Wilson’s tribulations. Whether the character is in prison or being ignored by his ancient, near-dead father in the hospital or humiliated by his daughter’s stepdad, Johnson films every scene in the same unfussy manner.

Only very slowly do we realise that he is building a case entirely in favour of Wilson and actually wants us to root for him.

The Shack (12A)

★☆☆☆☆

Stuart Hazeldine, 132 mins, starring: Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Radha Mitchell, Alice Braga, Tim McGraw, Ryan Robbins

In what is surely one of the most bizarre films to be released this year, a grief-stricken father spends a weekend in a shack in the Oregon woods with “God”. He learns forgiveness and has his faith in humanity restored in the process. “God” here is called Papa, played by Octavia Spencer, and comes in a very maternal form. She also turns out to be a big Neil Young fan.

Adapted from the best-selling book by William Paul Young, this is happy-clappy, tree-hugging, New-Age-Christian propaganda, very hard to make sense of or to digest. Sam Worthington plays the troubled hero Mack, who embarks on a fateful camping trip with his kids.

One moment, his son looks as if he is about to drown in a freak canoeing accident. The next his youngest daughter actually does disappear – and the state police inform him that there’s a serial killer on the prowl.

The Shack - Trailer

Remorseful and very bitter, Mack returns to the woods months or years later, bringing a gun with him. He has received a mysterious letter from Papa, which he thinks might be from his own father (an abusive alcoholic who used to beat up his mother as we see in a Wonder Years-style flashback).

“It’s been a while. I’ve missed you. I’ll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together,” reads the mysterious message. The postal service didn’t deliver it and there were not footsteps in the snow outside his postbox. This means the messenger was probably the Almighty.

At his lowest ebb, Mack meets Papa – Jesus and the holy spirit are also in residence. As they play host to him, the snow vanishes. Instead of the derelict shack where he has first arrived, he finds himself in a beautiful cabin in an idyllic summer. The healing has begun in earnest. Unfortunately, The Shack has no emotional or spiritual depth whatsoever. Heaven on earth as depicted here looks like an upmarket woodland holiday retreat.

While in the wilds, Mack gets to walk on the water, which seems like more fun than jet-skiing or windsurfing on it, and he hangs out on the porch with Papa. At the end of it all, after communing with nature and reconciling himself with the darkness in his life, he’s a better man, ready to go back home and to take his wife and kids on fishing trips. Modern-day Christian parables don’t come any stodgier or more syrupy than this.

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