Philip falls for Rachel when he meets her because, you know, she’s Rachel Weisz.
For the first time probably in decades, I actually saw two movies on the big screen in one weekend. Seriously, I can’t remember doing that since I was the reviewer for The Jackson Sun back in the ’70s and used to spend my weekends in Memphis seeing the new releases before they came up the road to Jackson. Technically, I wasn’t employed as a reviewer — the paper was too small for that. I was a copy editor who reviewed movies for the fun of it. My only pay for that task was reimbursement for the tickets.
And it was fun — I mean, I got to review “Star Wars” in the excitement of its initial release. I still remember driving my orange Chevy Vega back to my in-laws’ house after seeing it, my nervous system still resonating to what I’d seen, and I kept having to shake the feeling that I was Luke dodging and zooming around the Death Star.
Anyway, I saw two new movies over the weekend, and they were both really good in their own ways.
First, at my wife’s instigation, we went to see “My Cousin Rachel” at the Nickelodeon. And it was excellent. I can’t really tell you what happened in it, however, because its chief feature is that when it’s over, you and the protagonist are left wondering about that.
But I think I’ve got a better idea than the guy who reviewed it for The Guardian, who started out this way:
My Cousin Rachel is a highly enjoyable mystery thriller of the sort that modern communication and the internet have made impossible to set in the present day. Based on the 1951 novel by Daphne du Maurier, and adapted and directed by Roger Michell, it is a fantastically preposterous psychological drama featuring a lush score from Rael Jones and a tremendous lead performance from Rachel Weisz – who is mean, minxy and manipulative. Her sheer charisma persuades you to overlook one or two plot glitches. I can only describe this film as the roistering missing link between The Talented Mr Ripleyand Far from the Madding Crowd.
Sam Claflin plays Philip, a moody young man of means in the 19th century, always grumping about the place with his dogs and his horses, pretty short-tempered with the Hardyesque gallery of estate workers. He is, moreover, disagreeable about women, whom he regards as an alien race, despite the fact that the lovely young Louise (Holliday Grainger), daughter of family lawyer Mr Kendall (Iain Glen), is plainly in love with him….
I didn’t think Rachel — the actress or the character — show even a trace of meanness. Nor would I call her a minx — beguiling, certainly, but not in a way that seemed frivolous or flirtatious. As to whether she was manipulative… well, that’s the thing we don’t know about for sure.
And that’s the whole point.
See, Philip was an orphan, raised by his older cousin Ambrose, whom he resembled to an uncanny degree. While Philip is still a young man, Ambrose goes off to Italy for his failing health, and in quick succession does the following: falls madly in love with a woman named Rachel, marries her, suddenly starts writing home that Rachel turned out to be a monster, gets sicker and dies. Philip suspects foul play.
Next thing you know, Rachel shows up at the estate, and although he was highly suspicious and prepared to hate her, Philip immediately falls for her at first sight, because, you know, she’s Rachel Weisz.
But then he begins to suspect her again, and even to think she’s trying to kill him, and…
Well, the movie ends dramatically but with neither Philip nor the viewer any wiser as to whether Rachel is a monster or an innocent, good-hearted woman horribly wronged by unfounded suspicion.
The reviewer in The Guardian calls her “a great villainess,” to which I object. He doesn’t know that! I tend to place great weight on exculpatory evidence unearthed (too late) at the film’s climax. Not being a du Maurier fan I have no idea whether it was clearer in the novel. Probably not.
Things are a bit more transparent in “Wonder Woman,” which I regard as one of the better superhero flicks.
A bit clearer, but as with a lot of comic book movies, if you think too hard about whether the ponderously profound ideas it tries to express add up, it can spoil the movie.
Even so, this one deserves a spot in the top rank of the genre.
Before I saw it, I was quite fed up with all the feminist and anti-feminist ranting going on. You know how dismissive I am of Identity Politics, and the way I saw it was Hey, it’s another superhero movie — or superheroine, if you insist — and the fact that she’s female is incidental. The way I saw it, some superheroes can fly, other have great gadgets, and some are girls (though most are boys). It’s not some kind of statement, and it’s silly to let your own self-concept be elevated or damaged by a comic book movie.
But then I saw it, and… well… it really matters that she’s a woman. In ways that it didn’t matter, say, that Hillary Clinton is one.
There’s an interesting parallel, or contrast, thing going on between the two films I saw: Although the first is a (very good) chick flick, the protagonist is defined by the fact that he has grown to adulthood in an all-male environment — just him, his guardian and a small army of male servants. He is ignorant of and (because he’s so ignorant) indifferent to women until Rachel arrives, which helps to explain why meeting her hits him like a ton of bricks. A young man could not possibly be less prepared for the effect of a stunning woman.
For her part, the girl who will grow to be Wonder Woman grows up in a world entirely without men — and as with Philip, her first encounter with a member of the opposite sex is what kicks off the film’s main action.
Diana, who will be called Wonder Woman, is an Amazon. I don’t mean she’s just more athletic than average, I mean an actual Amazon, from Greek myth. She lives on a magical island filled with beautiful women who happen to be warriors with mad skills that would put Ulysses to shame.
Then the First World War breaks through the mystical barrier shielding the island from our mortal sphere, and Diana decides she must go off and stop it. She believes she can accomplish this by finding Ares, the god of war, and killing him, but things turn out to be more complicated than she expects.
As to why her being a woman is important… well, that’s tough to explain, beyond the “duh” point that otherwise she couldn’t be an Amazon. I just felt like, even though it wasn’t overtly stated, this was another one of those stories about the mess men have made of the world, and how they need a woman, or women, to set it straight.
You know, like “Lysistrata.” Or Spike Lee’s update, “Chi-Raq.” Something like that. Personally, I kept thinking about something in Catch-22 that puzzled me when I first read it in high school. Remember how “Nately’s Whore” (the only way she’s ever designated in the book) reacts when Yossarian tells her Nately is dead? He’s prepared for her to be sad, or perhaps indifferent, since it never seemed like she was as infatuated with Nately as he was with her. What he’s not prepared for is her relentless, murderous attack on Yossarian. For the rest of the book, she keeps coming out of nowhere and trying to kill him.
He’s shocked, but then he decides he understands: Why wouldn’t she hate him? He’s a man, and look what men have done. And sometimes, I sort of understand it, too.
I finished writing this post, going by memory, before I could find the passage in the book, but finally I did, so I’m coming back to add this — even though I didn’t remember it fully:
Yossarian thought he knew why Nately’s whore held him responsible for Nately’s death and wanted to kill him. Why the hell shouldn’t she? It was a man’s world, and she and everyone younger had every right to blame him and everyone older for every unnatural tragedy that befell them…Someone had to do something sometime. Every victim was a culprit, every culprit a victim, and somebody had to stand up sometime to try to break the lousy chain of inherited habit that was imperiling them all…
The part I had remembered was “It was a man’s world,” and in my memory I had made that into the whole thing. But the rest sort of applies, too. Someone had to do something sometime, and Diana decided she’d be the one.
Wonder Woman doesn’t hate the man who has dragged her into all this, or try to kill him (which she could do easily), but in her quest to kill war itself (Ares), I sense some of the same dynamic.
Of course, I may be reading too much into a comic book movie.
In any case, I recommend both films.
An Amazon warrior with mad skills — but that sword won’t prove as handy as she expects.