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Basil Reviews

This opulently produced film, based on a lesser-known novel by Wilkie Collins (The Moonstone) concerns a 19th-century British patriarch who cocoons his family with the trappings of wealth while impoverishing their emotional lives. Class-conscious aristocrat Frederick (Derek Jacobi), the master of Windemere Hall, adores his sickly wife, Agnes (Joanna John), but sets impossibly high standards for his two young boys, Ralph (Matthew Steer) and Basil (Jackson Leach). Upon reaching adulthood, Ralph (Crispin Bonham-Carter) impregnates a schoolmaster's daughter, Emma Mannion (Stephanie Bagshaw), and the unforgiving Frederick drives the Mannion family away in disgrace and banishes Ralph; his harsh actions hasten Agnes's death. Basil represses his artistic nature and tries to become a carbon copy of his father, though he can't reconcile Frederick's moral pronouncements with his affair with a housemaid. Basil strikes up a cross-class friendship with educated accountant John (Christian Slater), who introduces him to Julia Sherwin (Claire Forlani), his employer's icily beautiful daughter. What Basil doesn't realize is that John's sister was the disgraced Emma Mannion, who died during a botched abortion, and Julia is actually John's lover. John wants Julia to marry Basil secretly and get him to hand over the deed to Windemere, but the plan goes awry and shatters all their lives. The problem with film versions of heavily plotted 19th-century fiction is that screenwriters often have trouble separating extraneous details from essential character points. This melodramatic fable is overstuffed with reversals of fortune, and lacks the directorial nuances and screenwriting complexity of a film like WINGS OF THE DOVE (1997), which deals with similar material. It does effectively demonstrate the repercussions of misguided parenting; the self-loathing Frederick is hard on his sons because he can't control his own licentious nature, but his methods stunt their emotional growth and make them ripe for victimization by opportunists like John. Overall, director Radha Bharadwaj handles domestic tragedy better than romantic treachery, but the film can't be faulted for its physical production or its insight into British class distinctions.