No Rapture in These Secrets
The Secret Rapture Directed by Howard Davies at Harvard Film Archive October 28 through November 6
When "The Secret Rapture" first aired in New York six months ago, it received rave reviews in the New York Times, which depicted it as both a riveting psychological thriller and a social portrait of English capitalism in the Eighties. The Harvard Film Archive bulletin quotes one reviewer's high praise: "When the Oscars are handed out, make room for "The Secret Rapture." It's a staggering achievement."
It did seem promising: a multigenre film--serious with social commentary, seductive with sexual entanglements--I was prepared to laud novice filmmaker, Howard Davies, as a potential Hitchcock for our time.
Appearances can be deceiving. If only I could say something as clever about this film. There is no mystery about any of the characters here. It seems that Davies is afraid that if an idea was too subtly communicated, the audience might miss its overarching significance. Most characters are caricatures of exceedingly distasteful personality traits. When Davies wants us to know that the stepmother, Katherine, (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer) has a problem, a stiff gent with the curiosity of a TV reporter blurts out, "She's taken a bottle... she's started to drink!"
When Katherine is put in a mental institution after stabbing a businessman at dinner with the butter knife, I could not help but wonder why she was the only one getting mental help. Of course, Davies makes the point by having the only mentally balanced characters in the film die. This may, however be a bit presumptuous in regards to the father, whose death is the only cause for a dubious plot, and who has expired before the film even begins.
After the death of Mr. Coleridge, his widow, Katherine, descends upon the life of her step-daughter, Isobel (Juliet Stevenson.) Isobel's sister Marion (Penelope Wilton) convinces her sister to make room for Katherine in her graphic design business, which she runs with her boyfriend, Patrick. Isobel is uneasy given Katherine's destructive personality, and her disinclination to expand the business. Finally, Marion and her husband, Tom, (Alan Howard) provide the capital to transform the business from a two-person living room operation to a bustling corporate production. The aforementioned knifing scene is the turning point, when both the business and Isobel and Patrick's relationship plunge rapidly downhill.
Katherine is almost too blatant to be believably manipulative. At a business meeting, Katherine introduces herself as Isobel's "inheritance." When Isobel throws a fit because Katherine is planning to sell the family house, Katherine tearfully pours out a sob story about being penniless, and then in an about-face angrily snaps, "Be fair, Isobel!"
"The Secret Rapture" is plagued with excessively glaring dichotomies. Katherine's demeanor alternates between that of a helpless infant and an angry teen-ager, while step-daughter Isobel, who is in fact her elder, assumes the role of caretaker. Marion and Isobel are the Jekyll and Hyde of siblings; Marion values money, while Isobel cherishes relationships and peace of mind.
Likewise, the characters' interactions are awkward. To remind Katherine that she is a burdensome imposter, Isobel makes violent love to Patrick in the adjoining room. Isobel's weak attempt at self-assertion towards a scheming woman does not resonate well. The scene is not only poorly integrated into the film, it weakens it. A rowdy sex scene merely substitutes graphic detail for a more intelligent treatment of the characters' psychology.
This film might have been more successful if it built tension and climax by creating conflict out of the relationships of normal people. Because most of the characters are not rational, it is difficult to elicit meaning from their machinations. The net result is that the audience sympathizes with none of the characters, save the late father.
One of the redeeming aspects of "The Secret Rapture" is Whalley-Kilmer's performance. She expresses the contradiction between Katherine's warped vision of the world and her ability to exude adamant sexuality. Juliet Stevenson interacts best with the other characters, though the script often presents her with unrealistic prerogatives and situations. Marion might have been the most believable character, but Penelope Wilton's performance suffers from her tendency to rely on hyperbole to express Marion's flaws.
In a word, the cinematography is different--not innovative--but different. Most of the scenes are unusually dark. The drama seems to unfold in an atmosphere of a funeral, the event that started the film. This worked well in the scenes in the new office building, producing a surreal, avant-garde effect. The acting, mise en scene, and the characters of "The Secret Rapture" seemed to lend themselves better to theater than to film. This is probably because Mr. Davies' prior experience was with the stage.
Consequently, theater buffs might be intrigued by some of the scenes in the "Secret Rapture." I must reiterate, however, that I found this film neither entertaining, nor particularly insightful. Ardent moviegoers would do best to sit this one out.