Friday 22 September 2017

Movie reviews: My Cousin Rachel, The Shack, Berlin Syndrome

  • My Cousin Rachel (12A, 106mins) ★★★★
  • The Shack (12A, 132mins) ★
  • Berlin Syndrome (16, 116mins) ★★★
Mystery: Weisz plays Rachel in My Cousin Rachel
Mystery: Weisz plays Rachel in My Cousin Rachel

Paul Whitington

There's nothing wrong with a good old melodrama, and Daphne du Maurier was an expert at them. Virtually everything she wrote has been turned into a film or TV drama at some point, and My Cousin Rachel has been adapted several times before, but this version by Roger Michell might just be the best. It's certainly the most efficient, clocking in at a brisk 105 minutes and telling its story with clarity, and charm.

Sam Claflin is Philip, an orphan boy who was taken in by his kindly cousin Ambrose Ashley, and raised on a large Cornish estate. Philip is devoted to Ambrose, and misses the older man when he decamps to Italy for his health. Regular letters describe a meeting with a long-lost cousin, Rachel, whom Ambrose falls in love with, and weds. At first he appears ecstatically happy, but then his letters take on a darker tone: he complains that Rachel is always watching him, and spends money like it's going out of fashion.

Then comes the news that Ambrose has died, and that Rachel will shortly be arriving in Cornwall. Philip is suspicious, and half convinced that Rachel had something to do with his mentor's demise. But when he meets her, all reservations are quickly cast aside. For Rachel (Rachel Weisz) is beautiful, witty, and a breath of fresh air. He too will fall in love, but Rachel's character and motivations remain teasingly opaque.

Du Maurier's stories are all about mystery, and atmosphere, and Roger Michell understands this very well. His film is handsome, genuinely cinematic, and both Claflin and Weisz are well cast. He is very good as the loving but impetuous Philip, and Weisz is excellent as Rachel, a glittering, almost ethereal presence whose essence is never revealed.

The essence of God is revealed big time though in The Shack, a ghastly film of the American Christian variety. Sam Worthington is Mack Phillips, a family man with sadness in his past who's on a camping trip with his children when his youngest daughter goes missing. We then find out she was murdered by a maniac, and old Mack begins to lose his faith. And who can blame him, you might think: what kind of rotten God allows that kind of s*** to happen? But then, during a snowstorm, Mack finds a cryptic note in his letterbox, asking him to rendezvous at a shack in the mountains - the very cabin where his daughter's body was found. When he goes, he meets God, and not just one either but the entire Holy Trinity, who are not quite as we might have imagined them.

God (Olivia Spencer) is a black woman and spends most of her time in a heavenly kitchen preparing massive meals. Jesus (Avraham Aviv Alush) is friendly, joshing, an approachable middle-easterner, and the Holy Ghost (Sumire) wears lip gloss and is a right old will-o-the-wisp. Over the course of a weekend they nurse Mack through his crippling grief.

The cynicism of all this is breathtaking: a latter-day Job is subjected to the worst imaginable nightmare, then saved from despair from a glib saviour who spouts fortune cookie wisdom. Worst of all, paradise would not appear to include alcohol.

And finally, a word about Berlin Syndrome, an ambitious thriller from Australian director Cate Shortland that aims for the psychological richness of Hitchcock and early Polanski but falls frustratingly short. Teresa Palmer is very effective, however, playing an Aussie tourist who's backpacking through Germany when she's befriended by a flirtatious young man in Berlin.

They hit it off, and head back to his place, but next morning she wakes up to find herself trapped in a soundproof apartment. We all know where this is going - nowhere nice. But Berlin Syndrome's problem is that it goes nowhere particularly interesting either.

Also this week: The Mummy movie review: Reboot of a great horror franchise is half-hearted and short on ideas 

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