Taking a break from my Marvel Doubles blog series (as I’m still catching up on Luke Cage/ Iron Fist and collecting my thoughts on Punisher/ Daredevil), I just had to vent about this rather odd film I watched last night which features 1990’s-era Christian Slater and Jared Leto fighting against each other – and homoerotic subtext – in a twee love triangle that descends disturbingly quickly into disfigurement. No, really.
When I stumbled across this lavish Gothic mystery starring Jared Leto, Christian Slater and Claire Forlani caught up in a love triangle, I wondered why I’d never heard of it before. After watching it, I realised why. It’s bonkers. Not in a mind-bending, twisty Inception-like way, but in a daft way. It’s as if a Jane Austen novel was re-written as a soap opera by Stephenie Meyer. And I loved it.
Written, directed and produced by Rhadha Bharadwaj, the not-terribly-excitingly-titled Basil is an adaptation of an 1852 Wilkie Collins novel of the same name. I haven’t read the book, but to my surprise, the things I found unbelievably daft in the film are actually true to the source material. Whilst on holiday from studying at Oxford University, a wealthy young aristocrat, Basil Windermere (played by Jared Leto) befriends a commoner, John Mannion (Christian Slater), who introduces him to Julia (Claire Forlani), a lower-class young woman, with whom Basil becomes deeply besotted. Hijinks (and disfigurement) ensue.
For a start, even the poster doesn’t know what it’s doing; the main trio, their heads floating randomly in front of a blurry background, all look like they’re in a different film, for a start. Poor Claire isn’t even looking into the right camera. And why is she on a chair when the other two aren’t? The other poster’s not much better although at least the chair’s inclusion makes a bit more logistical sense; but now Claire AND Jared are looking the wrong way and Christian is smouldering at us to within an inch of his life. I think they were going for the kind of poster which ‘A Royal Affair’ succeeded in pulling off – i.e. the Queen formally resting her hand on the King’s while her forbidden lover secretly holds her other hand. ‘The only thing more powerful than passion is betrayal’, reads the tagline to Basil, but I’d argue its boredom, which is no mean feat for such a strange story. And, let’s face it, Basil isn’t the most intriguing title for a dramatic tale of secret and forbidden love, is it? It just makes me think of the herb, or the Great Mouse Detective.
We start off with some maudlin narration by Jared Leto over sweeping shots of a once-grand, now derelict mansion – Basil’s childhood home. We then have some awkward foreshadowing, where a young Basil talks about a ‘masked man’, a character he made up, whose face is so hideous that he must hide it with a mask. He even makes a mask of his own and wears it, but Basil’s uppity dad Frederick (Derek Jacobi, who is clearly appreciating the opportunity to ham it up) ruins his fun and says ‘make-believe is never harmless’. A brief montage follows, in which Frederick disowns Basil’s half-brother Ralph for falling in love with a commoner, Basil walks in on his dad in flagrante delicto with someone who isn’t his wife, and Basil’s mum dies of Vague Movie Disease, after which young Basil feels the need to burn his pictures of the masked man.
A decade or so later and Basil is now all grown up and played with whey-faced whimsy by Leto. He certainly looks the part of a floppy-haired, baby-faced 90s heart-throb – but tragic Gothic hero? Not so much – though at this part of the story he’s not meant to be, so let’s give him a chance.
Frankly, this story would have made a lot more sense if the romantic arc was between Leto and Slater’s characters – their first encounter is, by all definitions, an archetypal meet-cute: Basil goes climbing (what else is there for a rich young man to do?) and, naturally, injures himself. In walks the long-haired, heroically-bearded Mannion to be his knight in shining armour, tending to his wounds and making him laugh to distract him from the pain. They even lie back against the dangerous tree and start bonding over their life stories. When Basil tells his dad about Mannion’s act of kindness, Frederick can’t believe that a man would do a good deed for free. But Basil stands up for Mannion, calling him a gentleman, and subsequently meeting up with him to share a picnic and a cigar.
Is this even subtext anymore?
Oh, but wait, there’s more! During their picnic date, conversation turns to how – ahem – experienced Basil has become during his time away at university. Spoiler alert: he hasn’t, but he lights up when Mannion tells him that he’s experienced in the art of love. Soon after, Basil decides to try it on with his dad’s ward, Clara, who is introduced to us whilst petting and kissing the family dog. (Subtlety is not present in this film). Without any kind of preamble, small talk or so much as a ‘how do you do?’, Basil kisses her – and she rebuffs him. In a state of embarrassment, he goes to find Mannion (because of course) and finds Julia instead. In Claire Forlani’s defence, she manages well despite a poor script, but there’s zero chemistry between her and Leto. Perhaps that was on purpose, because of what happens later on in the story, but if you’re going to bait and switch the audience you may as well get us invested in the romance before destroying it.
Subtext Corner: Basil lied to his dad about going to see Mannion, and when they do meet up they full on hug each other – in Victorian society! Clearly they can’t keep their hands off each other. Post-embrace, and on spotting Julia, Mannion says to Basil, ‘I thought you’d come to see me’. No need to worry yet, Mannion, because Basil and Julia hate each other on first sight. Which, as we all know, must mean they will eventually fall head over heels for each other (classic ‘movie logic’).
Anyway, Basil moans to Mannion about how insolent and ill-mannered he thinks Julia is, but Mannion protests that he mistook her shyness for rudeness. Despite his intense hatred for her, Basil decides to visit Julia again, after which they go on the World’s Most Awkward Walk in Total Silence. Despite their lack of any sort of romantic connection, Basil is worried he’s made a bad impression on Julia, to which Mannion sagely responds ‘Nobody’s worth such torment’. (Try watching this film, Mannion). Cut to a montage of Basil making goo-goo eyes at Julia, going in for a kiss, and getting rejected – rinse and repeat.
Despite her continual lack of interest in him, Basil asks her to promise she’ll not see anyone else until he returns. It’s at this point that Claire Forlani shines in this otherwise problematic role. After hearing this unbelievably selfish demand from Basil, she responds ‘A few kisses and you think you own me?’ and refuses to promise the selfish brat anything – good for her.
Subtext Corner: Basil is waiting for Mannion in an alleyway at night-time, and Mannion takes him up to his attic room. ‘You don’t have her to lose her’, Mannion says, to which Basil replies ‘then I must have her’. Mannion is dead-set against the idea of Basil marrying Julia. ‘Only a love that cannot let you live without it can endure’, he warns, wondering if Basil has even felt that kind of love before. Basil, puppy dog eyes aflame with youthful indignance, retorts ‘don’t presume to know more about me than you do’. Trouble in paradise…
Mannion tells Basil to run away, to which he replies ‘all who love me flee me!’ He’s feared falling in love, esepciallu with a commoner, because of what happened to his half-brother Ralph – but Mannion, realising that Basil won’t be swayed, leans in and whispers ‘You’ll remember this moment, my friend, when I advised you to flee’, but follows his warning that with an ardent ‘your wish is my command’.
Basil does indeed go through with a secret wedding – even though Julia still doesn’t seem to feel anything for him (except, perhaps, contempt). When Mannion begins to make a quick exit from the ceremony, Basil begs him to stay, advise and chaperone them. Awkward Newlywed Life begins, as Julia will only allow Basil to touch her after gifts of escalating value are exchanged, until Basil eventually promises her Windermere Hall, his ancestral home and inheritance.
Meanwhile, Basil’s Oxford tutors are getting worried with his prolonged absence and suffering grades, so he goes to Mannion’s attic rooms to ask his BFF for advice – only to catch him in flagrante delicto with Julia! Gasp! He waits for them outside and confronts them, beating Mannion with a savagery belied by his floppy 90s hair. We haven’t even seen Basil argue with anyone, let alone KICK THEIR FACE INTO A BLOODY PULP but that’s the treatment he gives to Mannion. Basil has always been such a passive little fop of a character that this fit of rage seems utterly jarring to the story. He sees the reflection of his handiwork in a puddle and makes a quick exit.
Mannion is hospitalised and subsequently reported missing, but Basil’s too focused on inheritance issues to worry about his former friend. He turns 21, but can’t touch his inheritance without his dad’s approval – if Basil is deemed unfit, Lord Windermere can withhold the fortune from him. To add to his mounting problems, Julia’s dad tells Basil of his daughter’s pregnancy, which Basil attributes to Mannion. ‘You and your promises’, Julia’s dad says, shaking his head.
Basil finally visits his estranged wife, who is randomly surrounded by a group of peacocks – as you do. She finally reveals the reason for her reluctance to marry him – she’s been in love with Mannion for two years and only married Basil because Mannion asked her to (though why Mannion would ask something of someone he loved, I don’t know). Basil taunts her, saying Mannion couldn’t have loved her to ask this of her – but a dignified Julia replies that she spoke for herself alone. Basil then says one of the most ironic things in the whole story: ‘why waste your love on one who didn’t love you?’ Pot, kettle, Basil? Julia talks of Mannion; how something seemed to obsess him like he obsessed her, like she obsessed Basil – ‘what a terrible circle. Like a snake choking on its own tail’.
Basil, ostensibly the story’s eponymous hero, has become its antagonist. His naivete and selfishness has led to much suffering, including his own (heartbreak, anguish, the possibility of being disinherited). He not only disowned his former friend, but disfigured him. Julia has lost her husband, lover, and father – and now, on the brink of ruin, she is also pregnant. She begs Basil to raise the child at Windermere Hall – but now that he can’t be sure of inheriting it, neither can the child. Julia calls him a ‘typical specimen of his class’, scorning him, but Basil does at least intend to keep his promise and goes to chat to his dad.
In hindsight, it’s probably not a great idea to tell your unsympathetic, callous dad ‘if only you knew how much I’d suffered’. Derek Jacobi isn’t having any of it, telling Basil he deserves all that he now has to bear. Thanks, dad. But seriously, how did Basil think he was going to react? A desperate Basil plays the blood card – ‘all I have left is you, father, and whatever mercy you choose to show’. That quantity of mercy appears to be zero, as Daddy Windermere goes on a passionate rant about how Basil has been The Worst Son Ever:
‘You weren’t a disappointment, Basil; you lived up to all expectations – I knew you’d wallow in muck, that your mind was filth, your every impulse low and carnal. This is where your instincts have naturally led you. You have but followed your piper’.
But Basil has a burn of his own ready for deployment: ‘I only followed your example, father’, to which said father’s response is to banish Basil and proclaim that he has no sons. Another montage shows us Basil’s decline, being rejected lodgings and work and eventually warming his hands at a street fire next to a homeless person, with whom he trades clothes. He eventually gets a job doing manual labour for pennies. One night, he drops a penny and nearly falls over a bridge trying to retrieve it – only to be saved by a mysterious masked man. Three guesses as to who that could be…
Basil eventually decides to travel to Yorkshire to reunite with his brother, Ralph, who as you’ll recall was disowned by their dad at the start. Ralph quite literally welcomes Basil with open arms and is basically the nicest guy ever. ‘My exile has been a gift in disguise!’ he enthuses, ‘I’m truly blessed’.
Basil finds a letter that Mannion had slipped into his pocket during the bridge rescue, addressed to ‘my dear Basil’. Mannion claims that Basil was his ‘victim’ from the start – he purposefully sought him out as part of his plan to get revenge on Lord Windermere, whose actions led to the deaths of Mannion’s sister and father. ‘I took great pains that I should remain, on the surface, a modest unassuming man’, and somewhere along the line met Julia. At first she meant nothing, but, in Mannion’s words, he was a ‘man, with a man’s appetites’. A little creepily phrased, but at least the attraction was mutual, though I still don’t understand why he wanted Julia to marry Basil – possibly so that she would have status, protection and wealth, as opposed to a commoner’s life with him? He also began to care for Basil, not just as a means to his revenge, but a genuine friendship began to blossom between them, buffered by their mutual hatred of Basil’s dad: ‘Hate is but love’s twin’, according to Mannion. The more Basil struggled, the more it would blight his father’s days and ‘give meaning’ to Mannion’s. After Basil mutilated his face, he refused to see himself, removing all mirrors, doomed to live his life as a freak. After realising that the masked man on the bridge was indeed Mannion, Basil goes looking for him (cue montage) and eventually makes his way home to Windermere Hall, which now belongs to Julia.
He reunites with Clara, his childhood friend, who gives him the picture of the masked man he drew all those years ago. (The clumsy foreshadowing now has some semblance of sense). Basil’s dad is now a broken man – Clara tells Basil his dad has much to learn because ‘there is no greater joy to a man than his child’. Well that preachy message came out of nowhere. The servants, loyal to Lord Windermere, all left, leaving Julia to give birth all on her onesie. Basil, as upfront as ever, naturally hides behind a wardrobe as he spies on the masked Mannion reunites with his family. In typical Christine Daae fashion, she goes to remove the mask but he stops her: ‘remember me as I was’ he croaks. Julia conveniently dies so that the two men can fight pettily over her corpse; Basil reveals himself in dramatic fashion, without a care that the woman he ostensibly loved just died. Mannion just wants to leave with his child in peace, but Basil won’t be having that – ‘sensible’ is simply not in his vocabulary.
Instead, he does the least rational thing possible, and starts a fight with the guy he disfigured and ruined. Even now, Mannion doesn’t want to harm him, running away rather than engaging in fisticuffs. If we are meant to still sympathise with our eponymous protagonist, this scene destroys any kind of sympathy we have for him. I don’t want him to succeed in killing Mannion, leaving the child orphaned just to exact his revenge. Basil catches up with Mannion RIGHT NEXT TO A CLIFF’S EDGE (hmm, I wonder how this fight’s going to end…) and removes Mannion’s bandages. The damage is pretty bad, a tad Phantom of the Opera-esque (the musical version, not the book version), and the moment Mannion catches a glimpse of himself in Basil’s knife, he seems to give up on living DESPITE HAVING WANTED TO JUST LEAVE WITH HIS NEWBORN BABY MERE MOMENTS AGO. Subtext corner: post-fighting, the pair lie back on the grass, spent. Then Mannion just casually launches himself off the cliff.
We don’t see the aftermath of this tragic event until a decade later, when Basil is raising Mannion and Julia’s daughter IN A CAVE – why not just go back to the house? It didn’t burn down, Jane Eyre-style. Perhaps the house held too much sadness and the humble life demonstrates the development of his character but not one modicum of this story suggests Basil was capable of, or felt it necessary to, change. He eventually goes to London and publishes his story where he happens upon his old childhood friend Clara (and the way they bat eyelashes at each other suggests that Clara’s getting a stepmother in the not too distant future). He even named the daughter after Clara, a name he claims is dear to his heart, despite the fact that his only interaction with his so-called dear friend (that we know of, anyway) was a non-consensual kiss a decade or so before.
He also finally reconciles with his dad, which is presented as the closure this film was seeking, but was never emphasised as much as the romantic entanglements were so it doesn’t have as much impact as it could have. But Derek Jacobi is great so it somehow ends up working. He confesses to Basil that he did love his wife, ‘but maybe I didn’t love her enough’ and reveals the reason they probably didn’t get along very well was that Basil reminded him too much of himself: ‘as if you held a mirror up to me, and none among us can bear to see his soul so reflected’. End of film.
So this was a very strange story borne out of what appears to be a very strange book, but I kind of enjoyed it, in the same way daytime soaps can be enjoyed.
The accents are pretty atrocious all round. Christian Slater, bless him, has never been particularly gifted at accents (for further evidence, see Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. In fact, see it anyway, because it’s amazing). But Christian seems to have used those seven years between Robin Hood and this film to hone his accent skills and actually does a pretty good job, at least in comparison with Jared Leto; whereas his Joker sounds like Jim Carrey’s Grinch with a sore throat, his English accent is less Basil Windermere and more Basil Brush.
The biggest missed opportunity is the relationship between Mannion and Basil, the driving force of the movie and the only reason to get semi-invested in the story. I read their relationship as a sub-textually star-crossed one, if only to alleviate boredom (most of this movie was rather dull, until the whole disfigurement subplot, which was bonkers enough to at least pique my interest, despite the fact that I have a lot of problems with it.
Mannion and Basil’s protestations that ‘we’re platonic buddies, honestly’ reminded me of Albus and Scorpius from ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’, whose relationship, though explicitly described as platonic by the creators, is continually framed in romantic terms, such as moments where they say they can’t live without one another, other characters saying they belong together etc. It also called to mind Eve Sedgwick’s concept of the homosocial love triangle, e.g. the Edward-Bella-Jacob dynamic in Twilight, in which Julia is the foil which obscures Basil and Mannion’s true feelings for one another. To have Mannion, not Julia, as Basil’s love interest would also have heightened the stakes of the story – not only does Mannion, like Julia, belong to a much lower class than Basil, but as his not-so-subtle name suggests, he is, indeed, a Man, and a roMANtic one at that. But, sadly, this is all conjecture. Won’t stop me from reading between the lines, though.
Next week, we resume our normal programming with the Punisher/ Daredevil dichotomy in season 2 of Netflix’s pioneering superhero series. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments down below – what’s the weirdest period drama you’ve ever seen?