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Saturday, March 13, 1999

Is there no justice in the upper crust?


After a steady diet of U.K. "working class" films, a work that deals with the dysfunctions of a wealthy spoiled brat in 19th-century London can be pretty hard to stomach. Twenty minutes into themovie "Basil" and I was already fantasizing about how I would jump into the screen, break a few high-society kneecaps, then tower over my sniveling victims while reading aloud from "Das Kapital."

Originally a novel by Wilkie Collins, "Basil" the book comes off as an apologia for the snideness of the rich and powerful -- like the rest of the teeming masses, they had problems too and were entitled to some redemption. "Basil" the film seems to agree. There's nothing in the directions of filmmaker Rhada Bharadwaj to persuade us otherwise. Throughout the movie it's as though she's saying (in the voice of an English gent in a BBC drama): "Dash it all, one is a gentleman, or one is not. And I dare say, dear chap, that the gentlemen are entitled to do as they please. Or they wouldn't be called gentlemen would they?"

"Basil" begins with the portrait of a disturbing father-son relationship in a prestigious London family. "Father" is a despicable tyrant (Derek Jacobi) who thinks the highest praise he could afford anyone is "he knows his place." From early childhood, his sons are discouraged from make-believe games and ceaselessly lectured on how they must live up to their ancestors, on pain of being cut out from family fortunes and left to rot on some street corner. And all the while, father is far from being the bastion of British virtue: While his consumptive wife coughs her lungs out, he's out for a tryst with one of the maids.

Basil's older brother Ralph courts a local girl and gets her in the family way. Father is enraged and swiftly terminates the relationship by banishing him to the wilds of Yorkshire and leaving the poor girl to stew in disgrace. Then the boys' mother dies but neither of her sons are allowed at her side during the last moments. From the age of 7, Basil is doomed to lead a life completely dictated by his father, to serve him, please him and live up to his expectations.

Thus a morose and repressed Basil of 20 (Jared Leto) is ripe for playing into the hands of the mysterious John Mannion (Christian Slater), who for reasons unknown is plotting Basil's downfall. Mannion introduces him to the sultry Julia (Claire Forlani) who apparently spends her days mooning around her aviary and plucking peacock feathers. Basil is at first incensed by her rudeness then entranced by it.

The only way to have her is to marry her and the only way to marry her without being cut off from the family would be to do it secretly. Julia's father suggests a matrimony without consummation -- until Basil turns 21 and can claim part of his inheritance, he must be content with chaste visits to Julia. It is then agreed that these meetings will be chaperoned by Mannion.

If this situation seems vaguely pornographic to you, so will the actions of Basil which consist of sneaking behind his father's back and pestering an intensely irritated Julia to yield to his caresses. Blind to everything except her and deaf to the entreaties of friends or the warnings uttered by Mannion himself, Basil abandons everything for the daily few hours he can spend with his betrothed.

Julia soon demands money, jewelry and even Basil's Cornwall estate in lieu of a few kisses. Poor Basil has a bad case of what the Japanese call "unable to scratch the feet because of the shoes." The itch is there, growing stronger all the time, and Basil is powerless to relieve it. Basil is a victim, says the film. A victim of class, male instincts and the entrapments of Mannion.

Still, it's hard to sympathize with Basil. In his own way, he's just as despicable as his dear old dad. His moroseness, selfishness and arrogance seem to be traits that run in the family and it's almost an insult that he never even gets what's coming to him. Neither, for that matter, does dad. They ruin the lives of others without looking twice and both emerge in the end, content and wealthy.

For all the dissatisfaction that one may be left with by this story (or muttering during the ending credits that there's no justice in the world), none can deny Bharadwaj's brilliance in casting. Forlani plays the annoyed and squeamish Julia with precision -- you'll love how she bats her hands at Basil as though he were a fly. But it's Jared Leto and Derek Jacobi that steal the film, as fitting exactly the type of Late Victorian "gentlemen" at their worst. Leto especially comes off as a basic nightmare of the working classes. Had he been around in the French court of Louis XVI, his mere presence would have incited the public into starting the Revolution several years earlier.

"Basil" is playing at the Chanter Cine 1 in Hibiya.


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