“The Serpent’s Kiss” is the sort of story that looks great on paper but derivative onscreen. A pedigree cast makes this tale of a landscape architect on a secret mission in the English countryside in 1699 consistently watchable, but pic’s structure lets too much activity seem random or needlessly symbolic rather than intriguing and mysterious. Originally announced by the Cannes fest as opening its Un Certain Regard sidebar before being promoted during a last-minute reshuffle into Competition, the movie looks likely to snake in and out of theaters relatively quickly, before enjoying an international career of quality tube dates and vid rentals.
As skilled as ace d.p. Philippe Rousselot is in judging light and shadow, his faculties seem to have dimmed when it came to choosing his first script to direct. By the time the lead character reveals the underlying reasons for his perfidy, many a viewer will be inclined to say, “So what?”
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Young Dutch man Meneer Chrome (Ewan McGregor), half of the famous landscape architecture firm of Larousse & Chrome, reports to a remote English estate where Thomas Smithers (Pete Postlethwaite) lives with his wife, Juliana (Greta Scacchi), and teenage daughter, Thea (Carmen Chaplin). Thea is a bit clairvoyant, a bit schizo and certain that all the wisdom of the universe is contained in a book of poems by Andrew Marvell.
Having no male heir, the proud Smithers, whose fortune rests on his foundry, is determined to leave as his legacy a fabulous garden, to be carved from a wild patch of land beside his home in Gloucestershire. The garden is officially a gift to his wife, but she’s only marginally interested in horticulture.
Chrome receives precise written instructions from his unseen master via a smug secretary (Charley Boorman). The chap pulling the strings turns out to be Juliana’s cousin, Fitzmaurice (Richard E. Grant), a vindictive fop-cum-freeloader who descends on the estate for a prolonged stay. Having played rather advanced games of doctor with Juliana when they were kids, Fitz resents the fact that his cousin married another man. In theory, bankrupting Smithers via the ever more extravagant garden will drive Juliana back into his arms.
As romantic inclinations unforeseen by Fitz complicate matters, the best laid plans of mice and Meneer go astray with a vengeance. The story’s resolution has symmetry galore but feels more literary than visual and more forced than plausible.
The array of name thesps is the major asset of this otherwise uneven pic. As Juliana, Scacchi — made up to look far older than she is — comes off best, with Postlethwaite a close second as her husband. In her first major English-lingo role, Chaplin (granddaughter of Charlie Chaplin) carries off her feral nut-case role with undeniable poise.
Despite his work in “Emma” and the BBC miniseries “Scarlet and Black,” McGregor still looks sorely out of place in a costumer, particularly one in which his wobbly Dutch accent would seem to give away his subterfuge, however nimble his repartee. Grant is typecast as a revenge-bent opportunist, but it’s a type he does exceedingly well. Donal McCann feels a bit tacked on as Thea’s physician, whose stubborn use of leeches and other such remedies reps the arrogance of medical ignorance in full sway.
Production design, with County Clare, west Ireland, standing in for Gloucestershire, southwest England, is fairly satisfying, with elegant costumes, wigs and furnishings as counterpoint to the almost Zen-like garden.
A gale-force wind from nowhere provides one of the film’s more bracing scenes. Also intent on stirring up emotions are a few lovely passages in Tim Rose Price’s script, including a vivid letter read aloud about Larousse’s shipwreck. Dialogue ranges from borderline leaden to quite amusing (“This is an Anglo-Dutch garden with French influence — we have moved beyond flowers!”) but sticks out more often than it flows.
Despite d.p. Jean-Francois Robin’s excellent track record (“Betty Blue,” “Nelly & Mr. Arnaud”) and what one would presume to be Oscar-winning lenser-turned-helmer Rousselot’s exacting standards, lensing is rarely special, and a few camera movements are surprisingly rocky.
The soundtrack makes jarring use of bold African-inflected folk melodies while workers toil on the estate or at the forge — one more artistic decision that throws the film off-kilter. In fact, man’s inability to control nature fully is an apt parallel to the filmmaking process as it’s arrayed here — all the ingredients for a compelling yarn are present to varying degrees but they refuse to be tamed or harnessed for long.