Innocent and the Damned – You Were Never Really Here (2017), dir: Lynne Ramsay

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With her fourth film director Lynne Ramsay delivers an immersive, hypnotic thriller deplete with imagery of emotional pain and dreamlike visual lyricism enhanced by a powerful, throbbing score. No wonder she won herself the award for Best Screenplay and Joaquin Phoenix received the award for Best Actor in 2017 Cannes Festival.

The film was conceived and executed with evident influences from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011). It introduces as to Joe, an unimaginably hurt creature able to spread monstrous, gore terror but also experience fear, guilt, love and tenderness.

I can’t recall a similar introduction to the main character before. Several minutes go by until we actually see his face but first, we get a glimpse of a habit of his, that of putting a plastic bag around his head, asphyxiating and reaping it off just in time. My instinctive association was that of sexual fetishism but Joe is more complicated than that.

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We later see him leaning off the edge of a train platform when a woman with a bruised face is peeping behind a pillar; she recognises the pain perhaps… or has indulged in similar thoughts herself? Joe has suicidal fantasies daily; hanging off the edge of train platforms, asphyxiating, playing with knives over his open mouth, trying to drown himself after a severe loss and in a climaxing diner scene towards the ending he fantasises shooting himself point blank.

As a child he remained powerless against the menace of an abusive father. His legacy however passed on as Joe hasn’t dismissed his father’s appetite for violence, nor his favourite weapon, the hammer. Is the hammer empowering him as by representing his worst childhood fear, it turns him into the ultimate terror, or is it perhaps a joke on his father, now that his son is liberating abused kids with the same tool that once served his old man’s perversion?

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Joe still suffers the aftermath of the abuse under his skin but thanks to his line of work (he is a hitman but also, retrieves kids that were abducted for sex slavery), every victim he saves may represent an attempt to save his younger self. However, in spite of acting in retribution this doesn’t amount to a cathartic, healing process that could grant him his freedom from past nightmares, instead he carries them around with him every moment.

In a particular scene where he lies beside his mother’s killer, holding his hand you see he is embracing a brother’s journey to the other side and making it almost his own. For all his hypnotising fantasies involving death, he is able to make that connection with the afterlife through a fellow hired gun or keeping company to him as a substitute experience to the one he would like to have had with his mother.

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Joe is capable for love, compassion and sacrifice. He is caring for his mother and showing his affection by cleaning her fridge, seating by her bedside until she falls asleep and helping her polish the silverware while accompanying her in their favourite song. Later on, he will launch on a risky, vengeance mission to save Nina.

Joaquin Phoenix is sensational and shows great skill and capacity to creatively adopt an overly used persona and make it his own. His piercing eyes alone tell a complex, scary story and his ability to violently shake you and remind you that you know nothing of torment is astonishing. Towards the ending, during the mansion scenes in the absence of lines his talent radiates as he employs physicality to take us through Joe’s crisis. I believe that Phoenix’s performance elevates the character to the cult pantheon next to personas like Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver, 1976), Dae-su (Oldboy, 2003), the Bride (Kill Bill, 2003-04), Léon Montana (Léon, 1994) to mention a few.

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Ramsay abandons linear narrative for a more rich and interesting approach that embraces flash-backs and quick-fired visions. In essence, she is throwing a few pieces of Joe’s psyche puzzle here and there and are not enough for us to construct an elaborate, clear storyline. They suffice however to spot his most recurrent, haunting visions and the initial trauma that marked his later life. She also indulges us with extreme close-ups to transmit his extreme pain and loneliness.

She likes to shoot through surfaces for instance standing on the other side of the platform we observe Joe through the passing train or when engaged in a gory fight, we enjoy dizzying shots through the glass ceiling. In a remarkable, dreamlike scene where his mother’s body is drawn to the bottom of the lake, we see her hair floating in a slow-motion capture, in the same way a few scenes back the camera focused on Nina’s hair. That is a beautifully-poetic connection between the two characters, followed by a vision that more clearly associates the two in Joe’s mind and will push him to emerge from his passivity.

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Lynne Ramsay’s visual poetry is dressed with a shrill, muddy score, where electronic, polyphonic pieces intertwine with chilling, high dynamic range compositions, able to cause vertigo and despair. In particular, the “Dark Streets” track encompasses haunting, electro abyss. Jonny Greenwood’s work is always excellent and unique and earlier this year earned him an Academy Award nomination for composing the score for his lifelong collaborator’s latest film, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (he has also composed the score for Inherent Vice and The Master, both films featuring Phoenix).

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After the film you might check Lynne Ramsay’s previous work (it’s only three films so there’s no excuse not to…), similarly delve into Greenwood’s compositions and admit that Joaquin Phoenix has a raw quality about him and a capacity to convey pain that only few of his colleagues have. Also, you might feel ready to engage more actively with the pain of others, or perhaps your very own despair. Finally, you might try to capture the feelings you would experience if you led a life where you could disappear and leave no traces behind, as if you were never really here at all.

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How To Survive “Whore School” And Tangle A Mission – Red Sparrow (2018), dir: Francis Lawrence

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Cold War spy thriller from the “Hunger Games” director Francis Lawrence is a mediocre film with many weaknesses but nonetheless, enriched with interesting performances and a numbingly dark tone that compensate the viewer for all of its’ absurdities and banalities.

A story we have come across numerous time before, a woman in need (to help her sick mother…yep, this is the extent of the clichés here!) is asking for help from a trusting family member when she finds herself implicated into a dangerous situation and her only way out is to succumb to the wishes of the people in control. She is a survivor however and pulls through when the deathly pressures are constantly rising.

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Jennifer Lawrence as Dominika, the unlucky ballet dancer (has a sick mother dependent on her, a dastard and vicious dancing partner and an unscrupulous, pervert uncle) gives an excellent and meticulous performance. She portrays a woman in a desperate turn of her life; after having had her greatest passion stripped away from her with malice, she is put under an ordeal of sequential physical, psychological and mental abuse. Her face is the canvas of her emotional intensity and captivates with ease, and her role’s physicality allows her to mark her character’s evolution from the weak position of the victim to that of a strong, cunning warrior.

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Her accomplice and love interest is a solid Joel Edgerton and in the face of her villainous and highly immoral uncle we see the charismatic Matthias Schoenaerts. We find Charlotte Rampling in a part that was executed with apathy and strictness but left no particular impression other than its’ uselessness. In the same tone, Mary-Louise Parker’s performance seemed to be out of tone with the rest of the film. Jeremy Irons, although he has clearly refused to put himself into the failed accents attempt that was going on in the film, he has a powerful presence as a Russian general and adds a certain profoundness to his few lines.

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Red Sparrow is a spectacle of violence and cruelty that are mostly mere exhibitionism. Our heroine’s time in the Sparrow School in particular is filled with episodes of meaningless humiliations, always implicating sex of course… In fact, although I haven’t been recruited for a Sparrow myself, I would expect a more professional and effective approach in teaching those pretty faces how to be spies and master psychological profiling, while also breathing life into their victim’s sexual fantasies. Except for having them watch BDSM videos and get naked in front of the class (let alone how the only other useful skill was running, shooting and opening locks), the other main “educational” session focussed on teaching them to separate their bodies from their minds. This however was taking the form of sadistic games that in addition the recruits were refusing to play which ultimately, defeated the purpose if you ask me…

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There has been discussion around whether the film is indeed empowering women or simply pretends to do so. The question is perhaps whether the explicit violence and the use of sexuality in the film serve a narrative purpose or they exist only to perpetuate a distorted and harmful depiction of women. Approaching this, we shouldn’t forget that this survivor’s tale is set in an environment that encouraged misogynistic oppressiveness, especially in relation to Dominika’s new identity (Sparrows have long been considered as the State’s whores). Therefore, it is only expected that women are expendable and treated cruelly both by the Sparrow School and the State.

On the other hand, we can observe that inappropriately disproportionate time has been allocated to acts of humiliation and torture against women when these should have been shared with men. In the Sparrow School we only see female recruits being tested in front of the class, with only exception that one act of sexual embarrassment of a male recruit. It could be argued that Red Sparrow is exploiting misogynistic stereotypes to excite the audience’s curiosity and appetite for grotesquery and only masquerades itself as a feministic tale.

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It might be that the intention of the filmmaker is to intensify the cathartic experience of the female audience by succumbing them into witnessing representatives of their own sex succumbing into violence. In other words, the graphic imagery can shock and amplify the joyous victory of the film’s ending that celebrates the strength and wits of its’ heroine. In essence, the goal might have been to provoke our disgust and enable identification with the character only to prove that despite the worst possible conditions, our Sparrow outsmarted the domineering male assemble and used her sexuality as she saw fit in the process because that is her right after all!

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Leaving aside the elements that hurt the film’s credibility like the bad American/ British-turned Russian accents, the old-fashioned approach to the spy genre, the predictability and banality of the story, Lawrence’s directing is subtle, almost discreet and has solid flow. This can be more appreciated when we bring to mind the recent Tomas Alfredson’s thriller The Snowman (2017), whose overly stylised directing harmed irreparably its cohesion. Also, the refreshing choice of dialogue over action sets Red Sparrow apart from comparable films like Atomic Blonde (2017) where the imbalance between the two hurt the overall experience.

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Regarding the few memorable scenes that are beautifully-executed, I would probably list the steam room scene among them as it’s brutality and aesthetics are quite unique for a conventional modern Hollywood film. Also, there is a particular torture scene towards the end that builds up tension quite nicely and although hard to watch, it is one of the most realistic executions in the film. This should be highly attributed to the acting discipline and focus aligned with the director’s smart shots.

The brilliant James Newton Howard is signing the haunting, obscure and mysterious score that adds to the film’s cold and raw atmosphere. Francis Lawrence is indulging us with a plethora of close-up shots that convey the intended claustrophobic tone and its’ characters’ emotional torment. However, the darkly sexual atmosphere that Red Sparrow wants to bear is not entirely achieved but its’ perversity and nastiness set it apart from its kind and manage to arouse our curiosity until the very end.

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After the film you might try to recall what was the last American film you saw that included full-frontal nudity, explicit torture, hinted incest, the art of classical ballet, graphic rape, several murders, unconventional military sexual training and a serious amount of travelling. You might contemplate whether the film acts as a tale of female empowerment or as false manumission, replete with misogynistic tropes. Finally, you might contemplate whether the extent of grotesquery involved in Red Sparrow cancels the atmosphere of dark sexuality it so hard wishes to convey.

Fathers sin, children suffer – The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), dir: Yorgos Lanthimos

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Yorgos Lanthimos returns with an ancient Greek tragedy brought to a modern setting with a necessary touch of the metaphysical. The family we meet here is not as dysfunctional as the one in Dogtooth but is quite out of this world, stiff talks, wooden directions and no emotional connection can be traced amongst its members.

Colin Farrell plays Dr. Steven Murphy, a cardiologist who fancies a drink or two, loves his kids in spite of his emotional alienation and gets turned on by women only when they’re under general anaesthesia (or pretend to be..). Nicole Kidman plays his wife, Anna, an ophthalmologist with less liveliness and warmth than that found in the aforementioned state. They were both excellent and magically synchronised to convey the despair, fear and uncertainty of their great tragedy. Their kids portrayed by Raffey Cassidy (14-year-old Kim) and Sunny Suljic (Bobby) were exquisite little sufferers whose faces presented a fresh canvas to draw the fight for survival.

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Stephen has been keeping in his life, in a rather suspicious context and frequency the mentally unstable son of an old patient that died on his surgical table. Barry Keoghan plays the 16-year old boy, Martin with great care to detail and piercing, merciless determination that creeps even the bravest of us. Keoghan’s performance marriages apathy with desperate need for affection, and adult cruelty with childish enthusiasm.  In other words, Lanthimos’ and Filippou’s pen drew a multi-layered character that Keoghan’s talent and – I hope you won’t mind me saying- looks did him justice and elevated him to one of the most bloodcurdling cinematic characters of late, in my opinion.

The film deals with grand notions and universal human fears, such as the fear of punishment, the blasphemy of playing God, the meaning and forms of justice, the impossibly hard decisions (of the likes of the 1982 Sophie’s Choice…), etc. The mysterious plot is fuelled with claustrophobic tension, with the characters interacting in dryness and awkwardness, the scenes unfolding in long hospital corridors, big conference rooms and small spaces, that could barely fit the threatening, dark vale of Lanthimos’ camera.

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For anyone familiar with ancient Greek myths the title is not a mystery but the very inspiration and metaphor on which the script is based. Long story short, Agamemnon kills a scared deer so Artemis, the goddess of hunt, decides that his punishment should be to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia to balance the scale and restore justice. In our story, the doctor could be the equivalent of Agamemnon who after having committed a grave injustice is called to pay the price by making the most unimaginable sacrifice a parent can make. Artemis therefore, must have taken the form of Martin here, the boy who lost his father and with the power he possesses, or the external metaphysical force he becomes a messenger for (that shall forever remain a mystery…) punishes the doctor for the sacrilege.

I loved the film’s opening scene, it was a marvellous introduction to the doctor’s world, and an invitation for the audience to internalise the cautionary tale about to unfold. The spectacle of a beating heart under music weaved with doom and characterised by a thunderous echo was an engaging start. Also, it is to be admired how masterfully Lanthimos constructs with his monochrome pallet an ambience so bizarre, tense, emotional, gripping, funny and creepy, all at the same time!

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For instance, the devastating scenes showing Farrell unable to deal with the supernatural nightmare are followed by scenes infested with black humour that show that in the face of death all social structures crumble, even that of the family institution which we’re supposed to rely on for our survival in the first years of our life and where love is provided and taught in its purest and most powerful form. Astonishing was the scene of the “sacrifice” the tragic escalation and emotionally-charged atmosphere of which was simultaneously cunningly sardonic and vicious.

Remarkable were also the slow-motion shots, when Martin rides with Kim on his motorcycle, the final scenes where the family cross their path with Martin, etc. as it feels like time freezes seconds at a time and thus, we are peeping into the slightest details of one’s face, their eyes, freckles, hair, the slightest movements and expressions and all these dressed with a tortured, dark soundtrack.

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After the film you might delve into Greek myths and be astonished by how slightly the darkest aspects of our nature have shifted through the millennia, if you have siblings you might call your parents and present them with the grand question (be prepared to be called crazy accompanied with an angry refusal to respond…), then you might catch yourself focusing on the beating of your heart, you might invent a new game inspired by the film’s most tragic and sardonic scene to play with friends (not telling you what I have in mind, you should come up with your own…), finally you might contemplate what sort of sins you have been committing and dread that punishment might be on its way…

Nightmare of an allegorical invasion – mother! (2017), dir: Darren Aronofsky

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Shocked from the abuse and panic in Darren Aronofsky’s allegorical piece I left the cinema and have been gazing into the void ever since. It is a difficult film but also brilliant and refreshingly unique.

I stand with owe in front of Aronofsky’s cinematic achievement because mother! is visually impressive and paradoxically original. Who could have imagined that such an old, biblical (literally) tale could be retold through a metaphorical narration of that sort. Aronofsky’s genius as a writer is revealed in the story’s structure and as a filmmaker in the film’s horrifying and yet deeply emotional effect.

Jennifer Lawrence (Mother) is a passive, understanding, affectionate creature of immense patience and love for her poet husband, the Creator (Javier Bardem). The cracks in their relationship are evidently deep and irreversible, as it is soon confirmed. His wife’s company is not enough to keep him motivated and inspired so he invites a Man in (Ad Harris), and the next day, surprise surprise, here comes knocking his audacious, absurdly rude wife (Michelle Pfeiffer).

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These two are followed by their Cain and Abel offspring, and more uninvited guests that are bearers of filth and destruction to the beautiful home Mother has been building with love and effort. But the poet, as goes for every artist is thirsty for admirers and would sacrifice anything to keep them close. Whether you are the types that enjoy a full house or the ones that perceive their house as a sacred refuge from the world, I guarantee you will feel disturbed by the home invasion depicted here.

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From this point on is when my immersion into the story began, as questions multiplied and observation gave place to confusion and identification. The entire story unfolds in the interiors of a house but claustrophobia is achieved through the tight shots of the actors’ faces, especially Lawrence’s, being the film’s beating heart. And it is a brave performance she delivers here so she can be rightfully considered a truly gifted actress. There’s an array of intense emotional states she undergoes and she takes us through each one of them with admirable effectiveness. Initially she seems constantly confused, later on, she gets frightened and hurt, then immensely terrified and by the end, when the limits of sanity are by far surpassed, she embraces the cleansing destruction.

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Horror is not my cup of tea but mother! takes fear and repulsion to an existential level. Mother’s vulnerability faces an appalling degree of violence towards the end and that can be a challenging spectacle, despite having recognised the metaphors of her abuse and torture. The rational part of your brain might coldly command “Oh, look that’s Mother Nature’s child, an allegory for Jesus that is being killed – no biggie” but the emotional part might feverously react to the horrendous spectacle. Perhaps that is the most effective way to empathise with something of entirely foreign nature to you.

How easily would we avoid so much as dig a hole, if we visualised earth as a human being, like us. Of course, that is not the film’s purpose, to convert us into responsible and respectful habitats of this planet and unite us into combating the ecological crisis. That is not to say though that the unapologetic exploitation of everything Mother creates and is, will not make evident our similarity to Bardem’s character and will not bring forth guilt and shame for our kind.

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Mother! is a surrealistic film that breaks the rules of evidence and pushes you to spot the allegories in order to solve the mystery of Mother’s unjustifiable torment. It transports you into apocalyptic, wild, grotesque scenes that will make you feel imprisoned into someone else’s nightmare that unfortunately, feels all too familiar and deeply personal. The film is gripping and atmospheric as Mother has an established connection to the house that comes in complete contrast with how she relates to other people.

The cathartic scene towards the end, where she transcends into a fierce destroyer of everyone and everything is the most coveted resolution of the vulgar attack against her. But as the Creator follows his usual ritual to commence the next big creation, we are left pondering about the limits of hope that every other time could turn out differently than the last…

The film certainly deserves a re-watch, if not for its masterfully rich visuals and strikingly ingenious narrative, then for all the details that might have been overlooked. Question is, are we daring enough?

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After the film you might feel emotionally abused, empty and existentially shocked, you might avoid having friends over for a few days, you might lean your head on the walls of your house, carefully assess whether you’re respectful to Mother Earth (energy efficiency, water consumption, recycling, etc.); you might also, think about people you know that resemble the Creator’s idiosyncrasy (aka the egomaniacs) and finally, about the occasions when you were more of a taker than a giver, demanding more than someone could possibly give you.

Obsession & Old Pearls; My Cousin Rachel (2017), dir: Roger Michell

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The world was on fire and no one could save me but you

It’s strange what desire will make foolish people do

I’d never dreamed that I’d meet somebody like you

And I’d never dreamed that I’d lose somebody like you

 

A cover of Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game (performed by Ursine Vulpine ft. Annaca) was chosen to dress the film’s trailer and I believe there couldn’t have been a more appropriate song.

The film is an adaptation of Daphne’s du Maurier 1951 novel of the same name, written and directed by the South African director, Roger Michell. I’ve previously watched the original 1952 film starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton so the instant comparison in my head favoured the most recent version. The film’s cinematography by Joseph LaShelle elevates the beauty and elegance of British countryside (the story unfolds in a Cornwall estate) and the excellent performances. In fact, My Cousin Rachel has a theatrical feel in its directing and acting, as the cast is responsible for thrilling scenes that focus on dialogue and atmosphere. Speaking of which, the lush score composed by Rael Jones designs a mysterious and gloom frame.

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Throughout the film I developed tension and discomfort that kept me company all the way through the end, which I welcomed like a breath of fresh air because it concluded my agony and sadness. The exquisite photography was enhanced by the film’s Victorian setting, where we meet a woman, Rachel who is suspected to have committed slow and well-calculated murder by poisoning her husband. Rachel, portrayed by the masterful and powerful in all her performances Rachel Weisz, is a unique specimen of her sex. She is astonishingly beautiful and cunningly seductive. Weisz brings a dark and tragic tone to her character that lies under her confidence and disarming sexuality.

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There is great mystery surrounding Rachel as not only the facts of her past are only speculated upon but also because her every sentence and full-of-meaning looks promise an insight into her soul while in contrast, they give ground to further confusion. Accused of having turned into a sinister and grasping wife who, as the cherry on top has viciously got rid of her husband, she starts a love affair with Philip, her late husband’s nephew.

Admittedly, Rachel is neither trustworthy nor frank but she should not be placed on the other tip of the scale either, in my opinion. It is wisely said that the truth always lies somewhere in the middle. She’s passionate, sensitive and kind but also smart and shameless. She apparently has come to the realisation that only by achieving her financial and marital independence she can become her own person and enjoy a free life and thus, employs every mean to accomplish her goals.

It is often forgotten that in times when women were eternally dependent on their fathers and husbands, seeking independence took great courage and could trigger survival instincts similar to those of an animal who’s fallen into a deathly trap and fights for its life.

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Sam Claflin creates a magnetising and tormented Philip that falls unexpectedly in love and loses all reason. As Claflin mentions in an interview, Philip is a boy who believes he’s a man, and he successfully plays that part as a student and a loving nephew up until the point when his whole world crumbles: the man who raised him and considers his father, his Uncle Ambrose dies and leaves cues that incriminate his wife.

There is such childishness, innocence and naivety in Philip that turn him into an almost antipathetic character as he is perceived as a weak, google-eyed, untrained puppy and thus, idiotic in his altruistic acts of love. However, Philip doesn’t lack a darker side: he is possessive, impulsive and ill-tempered with violent outbursts that remind us that even the most gullible people can cause great harm. In his defence however, Philip who hasn’t interacted with women growing up is the most vulnerable prey for an experienced and manipulative woman that also happens to be his first love and sexual experience.

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In all his inner mess and outrageous, most eccentric and neurotic behaviour, he never loses one friend, the sweet and protective Louise (Holliday Grainger). Louise is not the opposite of Rachel but demonstrates another kind of strength and confidence. She is plainly in love with Philip and despite having to put up with his insults and a broken heart, she remains a loyal friend and gains our respect and admiration.

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Did Rachel poison them, or didn’t she?

She did! I believe that when Ambrose’s mental state was permanently affected by his brain tumor, she chose to poison him and set herself free from an abusive – despite it being none of his fault – husband. Later on, when Philip became asphyxiating, she had to bring back her poisonous herbs, only to regret it shortly afterwards – perhaps moved by his love and devotion, or feeling pity for his foolishness – and decide to see to his health.

The beauty in stories that leave you wondering is the complexity and sincerity attributed to the characters in the process. When a film achieves confusion to such extent then it has provided an interesting tale of mystery, deceit and complicated personalities.

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Finally, there were some incredible scenes beautifully-executed by Weisz and Claflin. Let’s take their first encounter for instance, where she offers him tea and cake, and he needs to lick his fingers from the melting butter. In the original film, it’s a comment lost between the lines and Burton’s sterile response is easily forgotten. In complete contrast, Michell and his performers take those lines and make an erotic, uneasy and utterly memorable scene out of them. The same stays true for the scene of whispers exchanged over a whipping Rachel, Philip’s outburst and many others.

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After the film you might want to read Du Maurier’s novel, listen to the lush and dark original score, remember a time when you were innocent and gullible in the matters of love, look up how many poisonous seeds exist in nature, debate whether Rachel is guilty or not, and finally make yourselves a hideous, healthy brew while pondering about the irresistibly seductive people you’ve met in your life so far.