A psychic thriller
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, with the full understanding that this film is held in high regard as a cinematic classic and meaning no disrespect to those who agree, I plan to take this opportunity to argue the contrary. Director Nicolas Roeg, in collaboration with screenwriters Allan Scott and Chris Bryant, has taken what has been referred to as a taut, eerie short story by author Daphne Du Maurier (Rebecca) and drown it in 110 minutes of heavy-handed symbolism and imagery.
Facts of the Case
The Baxters are living a happy little life in the English countryside. One dreary afternoon, their young daughter Christine falls in a nearby pond and tragically drowns. Flash forward an unspecified period of time. John (Donald Sutherland, Ordinary People) and Laura (Julie Christie, Doctor Zhivago) are living in Venice, working diligently to restore an historic Italian church. A synchronistic meeting between Laura and two elderly British sisters reveals a message from beyond the grave. It seems the elderly blind woman is a psychic who has made contact with the Baxters' deceased daughter. Laura, still coping with the death, is overcome with emotion and collapses. Comforted by knowing her daughter is happy in the afterlife, Laura's demeanor improves dramatically. John, initially humored by the event, becomes increasingly disturbed as Laura obsesses about using the women to communicate with Christine. When further messages from the girl reveal their lives are in danger, strange events begin to occur, causing a cynical John to question whether the warnings may be for real.
The mark of a thriller is its ability to captivate the audience, drawing them deeper and deeper into the story before pulling the rug out from beneath them. Exceptional thrillers intricately weave plot points and characters with critical precision, very seldom wasting a moment of screen time or a line of dialogue on anything that does not propel the viewer towards the story's ultimate payoff. Think Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity, Rudolph Mate's D.O.A., Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, Clint Eastwood's Play Misty for Me, the Coen Brothers' Blood Simple, David Fincher's Seven, and Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs—just to name a few.
From the opening moments of the film, you can tell this will be an exercise in symbolic artistry. Son Johnny rides his bike over a discarded piece of glass, shattering it. John spills water on a photo slide he is examining, the red color appearing as spilled blood. Within minutes, daughter Christine is dead—drown in the backyard pond. Roeg takes these images of broken glass and water and beats us over the head with them for the rest of the picture. It's raining when they leave England—water. They move to Venice—more water. Laura collapses in the restaurant after speaking with the old blind woman—broken glass and even more water. A loose board crashes into a scaffold John is working on—more broken glass. Enough already! This is the type of movie film students spend hours dissecting and writing thesis papers on.
Lost on Roeg's elaborately painted canvas is the story itself. If you want to tell a ghost story…tell it. Don't waste time giving us characters and sub-plots that do nothing to move the story forward. The Bishop who John is restoring the church for—no significant value to the plot. John and Laura wandering around Venice for half the film—wasted screen time. And hello—worst of all—the mini porn film Roeg gives us in Act Two. What is this for?! See for yourself, but I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if there were more than acting going on during the filming of this sequence. Jack Valenti's head would probably explode if this tried to get past the Motion Picture Association of America today.
What really bothers me is the film's inane climax (no pun intended). Again with the symbolism and imagery and little in the way of coherence. Not wanting to give anything away, let's just say well-written characters would have made much better choices, under similar circumstances. In the end, this project would have been much more effective as an episode of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone or Night Gallery than as a feature film.
From an acting perspective, I realize many people feel this film exceptional, but personally I don't see it. Julie Christie wanders around the film with very little direction ultimately doing nothing but looking beautiful. Donald Sutherland expresses one of three emotions—confused, apologetic, or angry—in every one of his scenes. The two elderly women (Hilary Mason and Clelia Matania) look like reject nannies from the interview sequence in Mary Poppins, except that they thoroughly enjoy behaving strangely. The most interesting performance is by Bruno Cattaneo as the Italian police inspector, who unfortunately has little more than 10 minutes of actual screen time.
Even the disc itself is less than impressive. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is marginal at best, exhibiting a fair amount of grain with lackluster colors and very soft blacks. This is disappointing, as it takes away from the cinematography, which is more interesting than the film itself. The Dolby 1.0 Mono soundtrack does nothing to help its cause, utilizing the center channel more than either of the other two main speakers, even during the outdoor sequences. As far as bonus features go, the original theatrical trailer is all Paramount is willing to offer. This is not something people should be rushing the stores to purchase.
There are times you will stand in front of a piece of art, scratch your head, and say to yourself—"I don't get it." You still respect the artist and his/her art, but it's best left for others to decipher and appreciate its intrinsic value. If you are looking for an exceptional thriller, rewatch Silence of the Lambs or rent one of classics you may have never seen. Don't waste your time or money on this disc.
This court hereby orders Paramount to rearchive this film and leave it there. Fans of Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie can find much better examples of their exceptional talents at their local video store. This court now stands in recess.
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Scales of Justice
• Original Theatrical Trailer
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