A broad family melodrama, “The Secret Rapture” is a fitfully successful adaptation by David Hare of his play. Making his film directing debut, Howard Davies provides an appropriately somber tone for this tale of blood rivalries and emotional manipulation. Yet the relentless weightiness of the proceedings wears down the viewer and limits the film’s appeal to a specialized audience.
“Rapture,” on stage, was more notorious than acclaimed. In New York, critic Frank Rich’s review spawned a famous war of words between him and Hare. The film version jettisons much of the original’s politically specific underpinnings and bolsters the Shakespearean-style tragedy.
Isobel (Juliet Stevenson), whose father has recently died, is torn apart when she discovers her bereavement isolates her from friends and family. Sister Marion (Penelope Wilton) remains icily detached, concerned only with the family fortunes. Their young stepmother, Katherine (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer), has inured herself through alcohol.
In such an environment, Isobel emerges as the most likely victim. While she’s grappling with a sense of loss, Marion is quick to establish her reign. Katherine puts Isobel under her younger sister’s care and moves to seek partners in the family graphic-design operation. The latter is neatly effected with the treacherous consent of Isobel’s lover, (Neil Pearson).
Of course, the neat little package quickly unravels. Human frailties plague the orderliness Marion so fiercely attempts to create.
Hare’s screenplay delineates a frightening precision and alarming logic in the machinations that bring the principals to the breaking point. But the story’s catharsis is never satisfyingly resolved.
Existing in a holding room between upscale kitchen-sink reality and allegory, “The Secret Rapture” challenges the director and performers to find their ground. Stevenson effects a powerful, strident and unpleasant pose that ultimately works against the material. Others in the cast are less successful in finding a balance, though Whalley-Kilmer gains our sympathies in an eccentric, bravura perf.
Ultimately Hare and Davies fail to bring us into or make us sympathize with this rather cold environment.