My cousin Rachel

There is a cosy little cinema tucked away from the main complexes in one of those alleys only locals wold seek. I even like its name – Lighthouse.

From time to time, when a promise of a good story coincides with a session only few people would attend, I treat myself to sitting for couple of hours or so in an almost empty theatre transported into whatever world opens before me.

I judge how good a movie was by the length of time it takes me to return to the world around me.

Which some might call the real world but to me ‘real’ has always been rather fluid notion.

Who is to say that the world we think of as ‘real’ simply because we can touch it –  is any more (or less) ‘real’ than those worlds we cannot touch – but are rather touched by?

It was with those thoughts, or some variation of them, that I went to see ‘My cousin Rachel’.

If I am to summon it in one sentence – I would say that it is a story of possibilities. It has been described as a mystery, a speculation, even a dark thriller … but to me none of those descriptors really fits.

To me the whole story – the one viewer is openly presented with as well as the one hidden and only hinted at, are the tales of possibilities. Probabilities, risks and chances, a woman determined to be a master of her own destiny is prepared to take in order to accomplish that goal.

When a wealthy but rather lonely country gentlemen (Ambrose) leaves his picturesque Cornish estate to travel to Italy to improve his health, leaving behind his young cousin (Phillip) who he has raised alone since the youngster was orphaned as an infant, the lives of them both are set to change forever.

In Italy, Ambrose meets and falls in love with Rachel, a beautiful and mysterious woman with, it is said, a somewhat excessive past. The letters Ambrose sends to his young cousin in England alternate between state of newlywed’s blissful happiness to cruel sufferings inflicted on him by his wife and his tormenter – Rachel. Some of the letters seem written in secret and haste beseeching Philip to come to Ambrose’s rescue as soon as he possibly could.

Confused and angry, Philip travels to Italy resolved to rescue his cousin from whatever evil has befallen him there.

But he is too late.

Ambrose is dead and Rachel is gone to an unknown destination.

Or so an elegant Italian lawyer tells him. He is the only one left behind to sort the dead man’s affairs.

Lawyer’s attempt to explain how very seek Ambrose was and how his illness caused him to hallucinate and even display violence towards his wife, are met with Philip’s deep suspicion and an open dislike.

Bereaved and outraged, Philip returns to England only to learn that despite all the suspicions – legal papers prove that Rachel did not benefit from the death of her husband. Not even a small living allowance had been provided for her as it was customary for a widow.

Philip’s conviction that Rachell caused his cousin’s death to inherit his wealth no longer holds any substance.

Were Ambrose’s frightened letters really just hallucinations of a man dying from a brain tumour?

But it will not be long until news of Rachel’s arrival to Cornwell estate stirs new theories.

Phillip’s determination to meet Rachel with nothing less than open hostility soon melts like a left-over snow under an early spring’s gaze.

Philip, a dewy-eyed youth whose experience with women do not extend further than a comfortable companionship of his wholesome childhood friend, a daughter of his godfather and guardian, who, by everyone’s account, he should one day marry, is bewitched and besotted by Rachel within days of her arrival.

Exotic, secretive, seductive Rachel.

Woman determined to live her own life on her own terms.

Woman who, in the 19th century England, refuses to explain or justify her actions to anyone, least of all a man.

When Phillip arranges for a generous allowance to be provided for Rachel – she is outraged.

When his guardian warns him of a significant overdraft she had rapidly amassed, Philip’s answers is to double the allowance to cover the overdraft.

When he gifts his late mother’s precious pearl neckless to Rachel for their first Christmas together, she returns them to his guardian to assuage his disapproval.

While Philip cannot wait to reach the age when he will be able to make his own decision, which for him means transferring the estate to Rachel who, he believes, should be its rightful owner after Ambrose’s death, not to mention a story of an unsigned will, Rachel describes Phillip as “a glorious puppy, miserable and wet-nosed, looking for its mother.” When she kisses him goodnight and tells him to “go to bed like a good boy” there is no escaping Oedipal reminder.

And still, once they become lovers, Philip is certain that they will marry soon.

It takes his wholesome childhood friend who is suffering silently while watching her beloved felling ever deeper under Rachel’s spell, to explain that Rachel is not likely to marry him since that would mean, by the provisions he made himself while arranging the estate’s transfer, that she will be answerable to him as her husband.

Philip, as any man of his time and no small number of contemporary men wold, found the idea that Rachel would value her freedom more than marriage astounding.

Still he brings her all the jewels he can lay his hands on in a scene that artfully portrays youthful extravagances born from the first passionate love.

It would be some time before Philip found that Rachel returned all the jewels to his lawyer.

Were they not to her liking? Or perhaps not opulent enough?

After all it is said that she is a woman of refine taste and unbridled excesses.

Is she really after the whole estate so to be as wealthy and therefore as independent as any man? So that she can do as she pleases including inviting her Italian lawyer friend to stay on the estate for as long as he wishes. Something, painfully jealous Philip would not allow.

When Philip starts suffering from the symptoms his dead cousin once did, while Rachel continue to brew bitter testing teas for him, it all points to one conclusion – Rachel is plotting Philip’s death in much the same way she did Ambrose’s. Only this time all the necessary legal papers are well in order.

On an early spring morning, as bright as bluebells growing in the nearby woods, Philip arranges for his wholesome friend to visit them and sends Rachel riding towards paths known to be treacherous at that time of year.

As soon as Rachel leaves the house, Philip and the young lady rush to search her room. But they could not find evidence of any wrong-doing.

All they found is the letter from Philip’s lawyer itemizing jewels Rachel returned to his safe-keeping.

And the letter she wrote to her Italian lawyer friend, who turned out to be gay, seeking his advice on whether to bring Philip to Italy with her.

Then there is a commotion in the yard outside and summons to hurry. Rachel has been found dead at the bottom of a cliff thrown off her horse on a path made slippery by the early spring.

Woman who seems to have heartlessly plotted to kill two men only to advance herself – dies while riding along the path suggested by the one of them.

Was it a chance?

Who is to blame?

Was she really poisoning Philip and Ambrose before him?

Or where they both so mesmerised by her unusual beauty, strength and independence, so rare in a woman of her time, that they eventually become ill from their futile attempts to rain her in? To conform to the world they know it as real.

In the last scene of the movie, Philip is seen sitting in his carriage on a bright summer day driving in a company of his wife – yes, his wholesome childhood friend and their two cherubic looking children.

His internal dialogue reveals he is still wondering whether or not Rachel was a poisoner?

And he still suffers from migraines.

Last credits drifted away, music stopped and the small theatre descended in complete darkness before I drag myself into the ‘real’ world – cold and wet winter night in Wellington.

Constance

In his latest novel; ‘Constance’, Patrick McGrath employs his skill of a master story teller to give us a keen insight into torched minds of his characters. Which is to say into complexities of the human psyche.

Dark corners of human mind, those obscure spaces where our most secretive selves dwell, are McGrath’s specialty. In an interview he recently gave, McGrath talked about his childhood spent mostly on the grounds of high-security psychiatric hospital where his father was a medical superintendent. In his own words it gave him enough material for a life-time of writing. I have no doubt about it; no other contemporary writer depicts ‘crazy’ as he does.

The same is true for ‘Constance’, written from the perspective of a woman who ‘hears voices’ and therefore may, or may not be suffering from mental illness, something never explicitly stated in the book, which is just as well. It is for the reader to decide whether Constance creates her world in accordance with her believes which originate in her ‘ill’ mind, or whether her world, including her parents and sibling, caused the ‘illness’ of her mind … a dilemma familiar to many.

Constance

Constance Schuyler Klain is a young woman who works for a publishing house and lives alone in Manhattan. Her aloofness and icy beauty makes her enigmatic. At the literary party, Sidney Klein, a professor of poetry and twenty years her senior becomes intoxicated by that enigma. He peruses her tirelessly and after some initial doubts Constance agrees to marry Sidney and move to his large, book-filled apartment.

The novel’s opening lines are: ‘My name is Constance Schuyler Klein. The story of my life begins the day I married an Englishman called Sidney Klein and said goodbye forever to Ravenswood and Daddy and all that went before. I have a husband now, I thought, a new daddy. I intend to become my own woman. I intend, oh, I intend everything. I saw myself reborn. Gone forever the voice of scorn and disapproval, the needling, querulous voice so unshakable in its conviction that I was worthless, worse than worthless, unnecessary. Sidney didn’t think I was unnecessary and this was a man who knew the world and could recite Shakespeare by heart.’

And so we are given a glimpse into Constance’s complex, intricate and above all troubled mind. Were the ‘voice of scorn and disapproval‘ real as coming from ‘Daddy’ or only real in Constance’s mind? Does it really matter?

The story is narrated by two voices; Constance’s and Sidney’s.

Raised in a run-down house on the Hudson River by English mother who insisted her two daughters call her by her first name; Harriet, and a father; Daddy, who struggled to keep his medical practice alive, Constance took on a maternal role to her younger sister Iris when Harriet died. She also developed an intense hatred for Daddy who she blames for all her troubles and sees as a cause for all her sufferings of which there is a great deal.

When Daddy’s declining health caused him to reveal a devastating secret, Constance is forced to revisit her and her sister’s childhood. In the same time her already shaky marriage is further troubled by the presence of her sister’s lover who plays piano in a cocktail bar.

Sidney’s only child, a son from his previous marriage, becomes Constance’s only solace as his own mother dies.

At times dark and disturbing, Constance is an unforgettable tale of devastation, as well as story of love, and resilience.