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A great guilty pleasure
31 December 2002
Fans of Claude Rains and Kay Francis shouldn't miss this one. It has its weaknesses--the romantic lead (Ian Hunter) is simply not as interesting as the devilish Rains--but it's tremendous fun nonetheless. The opening sequences may be the strongest: independent model Kay Francis meets the dashing but underhanded Claude Rains under strange circumstances, and the two form an unlikely partnership. The scenes between these two are the highlight of the film.

In a great supporting role as Francis's best friend and Rains's severest critic, acid-tongued Alison Skipworth is hysterical. And I love the elegant and often eccentric fashions spotlighted by the movie in the fashion show sequences. For me, the interest only flags during the "stolen holiday" of the title--a forced romantic idyll between Francis and Hunter. When Rains starts scheming and Francis starts suffering, that's when the movie really cooks. You'll have your work cut out for you finding this movie, but it's worth seeking out.
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Surprisingly good!
31 March 2002
Perhaps the key to enjoying this movie is to come to it with no expectations, as I did--or to be a fan of William Castle (as I am becoming!). If you know William Castle's work, you know to expect low-budget chills that don't take themselves very seriously. What's surprising about this film is that it's actually fairly sophisticated. The plot has some excellent twists; the chills are more psychological and less gore-dependent than in other Castle films I can think of; and it's just fun to see two great (albeit aging) stars get their teeth into a horror script. Barbara Stanwyck is excellent, and Robert Taylor comes a close second.

Why this little gem isn't available on DVD with (what I consider to be) lesser Castle works baffles me. It's definitely worth seeking out for your next cheesy horror fest.
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Dracula 2000 (2000)
Bram Stoker would approve
19 May 2001
As someone who wrote her dissertation on vampires, I'm very picky about vampire films, especially those that try to retell Bram Stoker's phenomenal _Dracula_. But, even with all that baggage, I was thoroughly impressed with _Dracula 2000_, and I think Stoker himself would have approved. It may not be the letter of his novel--no film, least of all the overpraised Coppola version, has yet provided that--but it comes closer to capturing its spirit than any of the other versions I've seen.

First of all, it has few artistic pretensions: it's a good old-fashioned horror/adventure, with good guys (and gals) trying to save the world. That alone makes it refreshing, and closer to the modest aims of Stoker's novel. And it's glorious to finally see Stoker's villain come to the screen as just that--a villain--instead of the lovesick romantic underdog that's been palmed off on us for years.

But, more importantly, it delves into the deeper themes and ideas that have made Stoker's novel so timeless: the blood exchange in both book and film acts as a metaphor for heredity, for the inherited taint of evil that each human (but especially, here, Van Helsing and his daughter Mary) must fight against. The dangers of familial influence and blood inheritance, so significant to Stoker's portrayal of the battle of good vs. evil on an internal level, finally come to the screen. The intricacies of the family ties (which I won't spoil for those of you who haven't yet seen the film) create a powerful level of the story about the complex forces that make up human personality. The movie also delves into the provocative question of how people's choices can alter their character--and potentially that of their children. These themes elevates the movie, like the novel itself, above the level of sheer disposable entertainment.

Certainly the decision to set the film in the present day will jar some fans of the novel, who are looking for the Victorian setting we all associate with Dracula, but again, this decision works for the story, reminding us that for all our sophistication, we can't be sure that the old evil creatures of folklore won't sneak up on us out of a dark alley. This was exactly the sensation Stoker himself worked so hard to create. In order for his vampire to scare us, we have to believe that he can exist in our world--that he is something relevant to us.

I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but thank heaven for Wes Craven!
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Flawed, but enjoyable
16 May 2001
Fortunately for me, I stumbled on this film with absolutely no expectations--didn't even know the title until I looked it up on the IMDb! But it kept me watching, fascinated, for two hours (including commercials), and at the end I felt like I wanted to spend more time with it. It has romance, elegant atmosphere, a surprising plot, intriguing themes, and good, while the pacing and direction sometimes seem a touch stilted, I'd definitely watch it again.

I'm a bit baffled that everyone who finds fault with this film picks on the story. For me, the story was the strong point: it had some truly surprising twists and grew from the complexities and relationships of a range of fully drawn characters--a luxury most films, with their flat cardboard characters, don't offer. And the references to Virginia Woolf, also singled out for criticism by many viewers, actually served to enrich and illuminate the ways the film dealt with the tragic inability of a woman to escape the double standard. In the world of the film, where even a seemingly perfect husband could with no warning transform into a tyrant, even a woman who thought she had it all could be trapped by a paucity of choices.

That makes it sound like a preachy feminist movie, which it isn't. In fact, those who enjoy good old-fashioned murder mysteries will get a kick out of it. Perfect it isn't, but I can think of far worse ways to spend a lazy evening.
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Donkey Skin (1970)
Charming, light-hearted fun
19 April 2000
The fairy tale on which this colorful musical is based might not seem the most promising story for a light-hearted movie: as the story begins, a dying queen makes her husband promise that his next wife will be as beautiful as she, and his solution is to marry his own daughter. Fortunately, our heroine has a savvy confidante, the marcel-waved fairy godmother, whose worldly advice allows the girl to keep putting off the marriage. Finally, however, the princess has to flee her kingdom and, in a Cinderella twist, disguise herself as a lowly scullion. Fortunately, even covered in a donkey's skin, she manages to win the heart of a prince.

An enjoyably tongue-in-cheek combination of music, humor, and romance, this film features some of the most splendidly over-the-top costumes I've ever seen, and an adorable soft-focus, slow-motion duet between the two young lovers (with hilariously anachronistic lyrics). Actor Jean Marais, who distinguished himself in a very different fairy tale film --Cocteau's -La Belle et la Bete- --makes a distinguished if warped king, and Catherine Deneuve charms as she bakes a cake while singing the recipe--and daintily keeping her ruffled sleeves out of the batter. The fairy godmother is probably the most enjoyable character, a modish lady in high heels who has her own ideas about the king's proper romantic destiny. A plus for tourists is that much of the film takes place in actual French castles, including the one with the famous double-helix staircase.

Those who prefer a darker slant to fairy tales may enjoy reading Robin McKinley's novel -Deerskin-, based on the same story. But if -The Slipper and the Rose- is more your speed, or if you want something appropriate for all ages, track down -Donkey Skin-. Just be prepared if your daughter demands a dress the color of the moon next Halloween.
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Excellent version of "Turn of the Screw"
22 December 1999
My friends have a difficult time stifling their giggles when I mention a quality film version of Henry James's classic "Turn of the Screw" starring Valerie Bertinelli, but she does quite a good job in the title role (a character altered just slightly from the novella to account for her American origins in a British cast and setting) of an altogether excellent film.

Those who have seen the earlier screen treatment of this story, _The Innocents_ (with Deborah Kerr in the Bertinelli role) will enjoy this version for similar reasons, foremost among them the excellent screenplay and eerie atmosphere. The 1995 film adds effective ghostly special effects (chilling but never overdone) to heighten the spookiness, a lush location setting, and increased emphasis on the disturbingly sexual nature of the hauntings. The children may not be as sympathetic as they should be--it's difficult to believe that their natural, unpossessed state is cherubic innocence--but the young actors are convincingly creepy and sly when under the spirits' influence. Altogether the cast is wonderful, with the incomparable Diana Rigg especially effective as the housekeeper who unwillingly comes to recognize that the new governess is _not_ just imagining things. Bertinelli's devotion, fear, and ultimate determination are completely believable, and the final showdown with the evil Peter Quint is haunting indeed--it will take your breath away. This film deserves a place in every ghost story lover's video collection.
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Jackie's Back! (1999 TV Movie)
Sly, hilarious parody
28 August 1999
I watched this for the ever-wonderful Tim Curry but was won over by the total package: this is a sly, deadly funny mockumentary that skewers diva ego, blaxploitation films, and the music industry, along with just about everything else that can be squeezed into the space of two hours. Jenifer Lewis is hilarious as the fiercely vain diva, and Tim Curry's dry pomposity is the perfect foil. The film's one flaw is the unlikely, unfunny ending in which all the deliciously evil humor succumbs to a saccharine feel-good production number and Curry, impossibly, grows to love the harpy he's been interviewing. In spite of the letdown of the ending, this is still a sharp, energetic send-up with lots of great surprises, including the priceless cameo by David Hyde Pierce (of Frasier fame). If this is ever aired again, set your VCR: it's a keeper.
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Beware the hype
5 August 1999
I hate to leave myself open to the charge of being a wet blanket, but I've waited in vain to see someone else point out that this movie may well disappoint those who, like myself, had their expectations raised out of all proportion by the tremendous hype. I'll say first off that BWP is well made, with convincing performances and a truly terrifying last 2-3 minutes. Otherwise, I found it a disappointment.

Because so many reviews have hailed this as a deeply terrifying movie, I was actually afraid to go see it, being something of a wimp. I need not have worried: the film is tense, yes, even unpleasantly so, but the characters were not likeable enough to inspire great concern on my part, and the incidents that should have been frightening merely inspired interest and mild curiosity.

The one judicious use of gore was genuinely creepy and well executed (as it were), and, as I've mentioned, the final sequence is deeply scary. I think, though, that the much-lauded absence of Hollywood fakery actually worked against this film's effectiveness with me. The hand-held cameras actually made the entire film seem more artificial instead of more realistic, so that I was constantly aware that this was, indeed, only a film. This is a shame, since the situation is so promising and truly ought to have given me the shivers.

I offer my experience not to put down the many who have found the film everything it's cracked up to be, but only to suggest that for some--not all--viewers, it may not live up to their expectations. I wish it had lived up to mine.
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Hamlet (1996)
Ambitious disappointment
3 August 1999
Branagh's Hamlet--both character and film--suffers from the same tendency that destroyed his Frankenstein: he simply goes overboard. When he's reined in, Branagh can turn in a fine performance, but too often he overacts, overdirects, overdoes generally, as here. I eagerly anticipated this Hamlet both as a reader and as a teacher, but discovered an overblown spectacle full of Hollywood-style excess, souped-up sex and violence, overpowering (and distracting) music, and performances that substitute volume for emotion.

Branagh himself is the worst offender here, bellowing his "how all occasions do inform against me" soliloquy as if in competition with the soundtrack, hardly even pausing for breath, let alone for a glimpse of feeling. The most crushing disappointment is the crucial "to be or not to be" speech, again devoid of any sense of reflection or self-awareness, delivered in a hasty monotone for all the world as if Branagh was trying to spit it out quickly before he forgot it. This is not the world-class acting the text deserves; if not for the sheer spectacle and the impressive (i.e. famous) cast, this film would surely not be ranked as highly.

Even the purportedly authentic screenplay makes several crucial interpretive choices for the viewer and completely rewrites the nature of Fortinbras's final entrance into Elsinore. The only bright points are Derek Jacobi, who offers some emotional complexity as Claudius, and a Gertrude who finally seems to have a backbone. The absence of the Oedipal interpretation is welcome, but this alone cannot place this disastrous film above the Mel Gibson version, which remains its superior. The volume of laudatory reviews for this foolish film depresses me--but at least it may bring some new readers to the play itself, which _does_ deserve this kind of admiration.
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The Woman in White (1997 TV Movie)
Elegant, moody gothic
1 August 1999
Although I still prefer the 1948 film version, which is more satisfyingly developed (in spite of an ending that comes out of nowhere), this newer version of Wilkie Collins's mystery has a lot to offer. Tara Fitzgerald and Justine Waddell are excellent as the two very different heroines, and Simon Callow is, as always, delightful (if not as deliciously repulsive as Sidney Greenstreet in this role). The mystery, romance and suspense begin to take a moody, even depressing turn in the second half, but this is still, overall, a satisfying film for fans of gothics, visually compelling and more than a little haunting.
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Haunting, creepy, and richly rewarding
16 July 1999
While eagerly awaiting the release of Blair Witch Project, I finally got around to watching this movie, and Picnic is emphatically the more effective of the two. Although many will object that the two films are too different to compare, I think such a comparison is valid: both rely for their effectiveness on atmosphere over visible, clearly defined spooks; on suspense over special effects or even plot resolution. However, the worlds of the two films are unarguably different. I found the golden, dreamy, visually mesmerizing Australian countryside of Picnic one of the film's most outstanding features. This lyrical, almost sleepy period setting, thronging with long-haired damsels in white lawn dresses, lulls the viewer into a spellbound state, aided by the otherworldly pan flute music.

The film unwinds slowly and deliberately, which may account for the occasional hostile reviews; certainly, if you want fast-paced thrills, or are in an impatient or hurried mood, Picnic will be wasted on you. But if you allow yourself, you'll be hypnotized by the gentle increase of tension and mystery, even as you are unable to identify their source. Before long the suspense will become almost unbearable as you come closer and closer to the horror lurking beneath the sun-drenched surface.

But the source of the horror? That's left largely to you. While I was initially disappointed that the film offered so little explanation for the pivotal disappearance of the young women, on reflection I realize that any explanation would only reduce the film's eeriness. Part of the power of this film is its ability to leave you wondering, guessing, and still trying to put your finger on the reason it's so disturbing. It may begin like A Room With a View, but ultimately it's an exquisitely rendered horror film.
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Heartbeat (1946)
Charming, old-fashioned fun
20 June 1999
I stumbled upon this film in an early-morning, commercial-filled broadcast, but such was its charm that I not only stuck with it but sought out a copy of my own. Part of its appeal is an unusual--and unusually wistful--role for Rogers: as a reluctant pickpocket-in-training, she combines a poignant innocence with her trademark spunk. Basil Rathbone is, as always, elegantly nasty as her mentor/Svengali, and the good old-fashioned happy ending will satisfy the romantic in you. This may not be for those who prefer Ginger in dancing mode, but if you enjoyed the cheerful sentimentality of Kitty Foyle, you should check out Heartbeat.
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Dragonwyck (1946)
Enjoyable gothic
12 June 1999
As a fan of both Gene Tierney and Vincent Price, I eagerly sought this film for years before happening upon a broadcast. Since it, most unfortunately, still isn't available on video, I was forced to depend upon network whims. Since I'm also a fervent fan of gothic books and films, I was all the more anxious to see two of my favorite stars in one of my favorite formulae. I'd like to say the film completely fulfilled my hopes. Not quite, perhaps, but it's still a lot of fun, especially for those who follow the stars. (One friend said she thought this was the only Vincent Price film not available on video.)

If you enjoyed _My Cousin Rachel_ (another tragically elusive film!) or the Orson Welles _Jane Eyre_, you'll probably have a good time with _Dragonwyck_. The classic elements are there: lovely, innocent heroine (Tierney); brooding, mysterious, wealthy man (Price); luxurious yet sinister mansion; ghostly and/or murderous plot twists. One plot twist will probably come as absolutely no surprise, given the relentless typecasting of Price (has he ever been a good guy, except in _House of the Seven Gables_? --another great gothic, by the way). Nevertheless his character has touches of subtlety and surprising developments. Tierney's character is perhaps less subtly shaded but does develop nicely over the course of the movie. Jessica Tandy is quite fun in an energetic supporting role, and Tierney's stern, craggy father is another strong supporting character.

Few have probably read the novel that inspired the film, but after seeing the film I sought out the source and I have to say the film tightens up the story considerably. Certainly it makes changes, but overall the film is more satisfying in many ways. It may not be quite in the company of such classics as _Rebecca_ and _Jane Eyre_, but it's nonetheless a lot of fun.
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In Name Only (1939)
classic tearjerker
12 June 1999
This practically perfect film is one of the most satisfying "weepies" ever. The stars are the incomparable Cary Grant and Carole Lombard, both displaying a consummate ability to move from comedy to drama, as the film shifts from a frothy, meet-cute beginning to a series of heartrending disappointments and near-tragedies. (Never fear--the ending won't leave you shattered.) Kay Francis is elegantly evil as Grant's manipulative wife, the perfect hissable villain; her exotic brunette sultriness is the perfect contrast to Lombard's fragile but spunky heroine. The scope of the film is small--the story of two people in love who keep trying without success to make a life together--but everything about it is polished, expert, and ultimately very moving. Don't miss this one, ladies.
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A nearly flawless classic
29 March 1999
This classic version of the Bronte novel is probably familiar to most movie fans, and with good reason. Although the recent Ralph Fiennes version is also excellent, nothing can quite surpass the 1939 film's bleak black-and-white cinematography or the impassioned performance of Laurence Olivier. Some of us still mourn that his then-wife, Vivien Leigh, wasn't granted her wish to be cast as Catherine, but Merle Oberon is nonetheless excellent: her Catherine isn't quite likable, but then, she isn't supposed to be. Instead of sugar-coating the story as Hollywood is so wont to do, the filmmakers give us Cathy and Heathcliff as they should be: ruthless, selfish, destructive, and fascinating. The only major drawback is the saccharine musical score, which tries to make this wild, haunting story into a candy-box romance. Fortunately, all the other elements resist this tendency. Even though the film only covers half the novel, you'll find it satisfying and unforgettable.
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The perfect feel-good movie
22 March 1999
An irresistible combination: the classic plot about a young idealist who rebels against the hidebound establishment, paired with a delirious parody of the deadly serious hobby of ballroom dancing (that nevertheless allows you to enjoy all the energy and romance of the sport). The inspired mockumentary opening introduces us to our restless hero (Mercurio, an accomplished real-life dancer), who scandalizes everyone by daring to improvise in a samba competition. Joining him on his quest to introduce new moves into the ballroom formula is an unlikely heroine, ugly duckling Morice, who follows classic film tradition by transforming into a swan after she convinces Mercurio to take her on as a partner. Surprisingly, though, she has a few things to teach him about dancing--and about having the courage to follow your dreams.

Everything about this film is expertly executed--the costumes, dialogue, choreography, and especially the casting. Mercurio and Morice, excellent as they are, are almost upstaged at times by a marvelous supporting cast. Their journey culminates in a heady, thrilling paso doble that reaffirms the value of individualism in a jaded world, and reminds us what dancing is really all about. Filled with laugh-out-loud humor, old-fashioned romance, a giddy flashback sequence, and stirring dance numbers, this movie is guaranteed to lift your spirits and make you feel like dancing.
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Pass the Ammo (1988)
Divinely eccentric fun
22 March 1999
Any film that features the immortal Tim Curry as a corrupt televangelist would be worth watching, and this one has even more to offer: Annie Potts as his loopy, big-haired wife; gun-toting good old boys fresh out of jail (and hungry for Moon Pies); dancing angels in fishnet stockings; and a trigger-happy citizens' militia that takes its TV very seriously. This screwball satire features Bill Paxton as our hero, who attempts to quietly steal back his girlfriend's legacy but inadvertently takes the TV studio Tower of Bethlehem hostage--during a live broadcast. Curry and Potts give virtuoso performances, but every one of the quirky supporting characters adds to the fun. While this over-the-top comedy may not be for all tastes, anyone who ever laughed at a Tammy Faye t-shirt should get a kick out of its razor-sharp send-up of televangelism, and fans of Curry, Potts, or Paxton shouldn't miss it.
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Hired Wife (1940)
Giddy, sophisticated comedy
22 March 1999
This is comedy in the classic style, starring the incomparable Rosalind Russell in the kind of role she did best: the savvy professional woman. Here she is a wily, sassy secretary, devoted to her cement mogul boss because, she claims, "every good secretary is in love with her boss." But although she manages to snare him in a marriage of convenience, she still has to use her cunning to separate him from the equally determined blonde model he's pursuing. Add a spurious foreign millionaire and a disgruntled chaperone (Robert Benchley, in a hilarious supporting performance) and you have a perfect romantic comedy. Sharp dialogue, an ever-twisting plot, and Russell's deft, headlong performance make this a delight from start to finish.
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Anastasia (1997)
A classic for all ages
17 March 1999
Let others carp about the disservices to history: this Anastasia rises above its flaws to offer an engaging, emotionally resonant story of a girl's search for identity. Within its historical, quasi-factual context, the film presents a situation almost everyone can relate to--that of trying to find one's place in the world. Orphaned Anya's quest for her past (and, consequently, her future) strikes universal emotional chords: singing "Journey to the Past," she sets out with both trepidation and hope to find her identity and her place in the world. The haunting, poignant "Once Upon a December" sequence, one of the finest scenes in any recent film, is unforgettable, as we watch Anya's yearnings take the form of a ghostly dance with memories of a vanished life. And the final reunion where hostility melts gradually into acceptance, is one of the most moving and satisfying moments in film. Everything about the film bespeaks loving attention and quality: the magnificent animation and design re-create lavish Russian and Parisian locations (complete with recognizable artworks and cameos by celebrities of the '20s), and the screenplay balances action, humor, and genuine emotion. Villain Rasputin is clearly aimed at children, and some of the repartee between Anya and unlikely hero Dimitri may seem jarringly anachronistic, but viewers of any age should still enjoy this timeless coming-of-age story.
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Midnight (1939)
A sophisticated comedy classic
17 March 1999
Although languishing in obscurity in comparison to other great films of 1939, Midnight is a classic that deserves to be ranked among the best comedies. In this sophisticated twist on the Cinderella story, a penniless showgirl (the incomparable Claudette Colbert) passes herself off as a foreign aristocrat to help John Barrymore win back his erring wife from a champagne mogul. If she succeeds in winning this millionaire for herself, she'll have the rich lifestyle--the "tub of butter"--for which she's been scheming, but taxi driver Don Ameche is determined to teach her the age-old lesson that love is better than riches. Not only is the film a delight for fans of Colbert, whose genius for offhand, sophisticated comedy shines here, but viewers are also treated to one of Barrymore's last and funniest performances. Although he is said to have read his lines from cue cards for this film, his performance looks flawless: worldly, cunning, and wildly eccentric. Ameche provides the perfect counterpart for Colbert, holding his own in the dizzying round of deceptions, impersonations, and frivolous lawsuits. This is a sparkling, witty film that should be part of every comedy fan's library.
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Quirky, poignant, and memorable--instant favorite
12 March 1999
For those weary of shallow films bearing Hollywood gloss, Truly, Madly, Deeply offers a memorable and rewarding experience. Moving from the deeply poignant to the divinely eccentric, the film involves you in the lives (and afterlives) of people who seem much more real and engaging than most film characters. Juliet Stevenson is remarkable as the heroine who goes from mourning her lost beloved to welcoming him back, to wondering if her life is best spent with a man whose life is already over (Alan Rickman, in a subtly charming performance). Though this film is packaged as a comedy, don't expect big laughs; its humor is more of the gently whimsical school, although there are some priceless lines and scenes (ever tried to summarize your life while hopping on one foot?). The mood of the film is very different from most Hollywood offerings, so you may need to bring an open mind and some patience to appreciate it; for those who do, however, this is a richly rewarding film.
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An excellent, atmospheric adaptation of the novel
10 March 1999
Thanks to an excellent cast, lavish production and a screenplay that remains remarkably faithful to the novel, Daphne du Maurier's romantic suspense novel _My Cousin Rachel_ becomes a very effective film. Ever-elegant Olivia de Havilland displays just enough cool reserve and mystery as the ambiguous title character, while the young Richard Burton is appropriately brooding as he falls under her spell even though he half believes her to be a murderess. Fans of gothic romance will enjoy the period setting and the Cornwall location as well as the suspenseful, surprising plot, which resolves in an ending you will want to talk about with everyone you know.
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A little-known gem
10 March 1999
One of the all-time great tearjerkers, this film satisfies on many levels: it offers a truly involving and emotionally moving story, an abundance of well-drawn and complex characters, an unusual setting, and three excellent stars (Charles Boyer, Olivia de Havilland, and Paulette Goddard). Boyer's character narrates much of the film, describing how he woos and weds sweet schoolteacher de Havilland in order to gain American citizenship, and this device allows us to listen in as his jaded, mercenary persona mellows and purifies under the influence of his innocent bride. Full of wry humor and a colorful supporting cast, this film deserves to be better known.
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