Zola is one of my all-time favourite authors, so when I saw this British television production of Therese Raquin from 1980, I had high expectations. The 60s-70s saw some of the very best BBC adaptations of classic novels–Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Zola’s Nana, Casanova (from his memoirs), and now I’ll add Therese Raquin to the extended list. This is a superb adaptation, and if you are into Zola, period drama, or British television, do yourself a favour, grab this 2-disc set, and prepare yourself for some fabulous viewing.
When the film begins, Therese Raquin (Kate Nelligan) is a young married woman, wed to her dull, child-like cousin, Camille (Kenneth Cranham). They live with his mother, the very solid, very reliable and steady Madame Raquin (Mona Washbourne)–a woman who tends to coddle her only child Camille so much that it’s impossible to tell if he’s really sickly or if he’s just been indoctrinated to think he’s a semi-invalid. Madame Raquin runs a small shop, with Therese helping, and Camille works elsewhere as a clerk. The three live above the shop, in modest but stable circumstances.
Life for the Raquins has an established routine, and it’s a routine that Madame Raquin and Camille enjoy. Each Thursday evening, is ‘domino night’ and old friends Olivier Michaud (Philip Bowen), his wife Suzanne (Jenny Galloway), Michaud’s father (Richard Pearson), and Grivet (Timothy Bateson) gather to play dominos for a few sous while they enjoy each other’s company. The predictability of these evenings plays out with the same script every week, and everyone except Therese enjoys the time spent with these old friends. She’s so bored, she’s stupefied.
And then one-time artist, now petty clerk Laurent Leclaire (Brian Cox) enters the picture. There are hints dropped that Laurent is a weak, dissolute character as he failed to finish his legal studies and instead pursued a career as an artist with the necessary accoutrement of naked models. But with little talent, he now works as a minor clerk. Laurent immediately recognizes and is fascinated by Therese’s latent sexuality, and to Therese, the debonair Laurent seems different and exciting. Therese’s sexual awakening stirs dark passions, and Laurent, who initially visits the Raquins for free meals, becomes obsessed with his best friend’s wife. Drawn to each other, they indulge in an addictive, passionate, and explosive adulterous affair but find their moments of passion severely crimped by Therese’s oppressive home life and Laurent’s penury. Soon they hatch a plot to murder Camille.
Therese cannily understands that the small social group that convenes every Thursday is interested in continuing the predictable social pattern above all else, and she schemes to turn this to her advantage. Unfortunately the tedium of Therese’s suffocating life is not alleviated by the exchange of men. The Thursday evenings, which take place with boring regularity, but are supposed to represent the highlight of the Raquins’ social life, are so intricately rendered that even boring takes on a fascinating aspect. It takes a great deal of skill to replicate boring and make it interesting but this is achieved in this splendid production. Similarly, the abject poverty of Laurent’s life is underscored in just a couple of scenes. While the Raquins have a very small modest, lifestyle, they seem positively rolling in money when we see the reality of Laurent’s horrible life in a frozen, filthy garret.
Each stage of this fascinating, painful and sometimes horribly cruel story is executed upon the stage with precision and perfection. There’s Therese and Laurent’s passionate explosive affair–a phase in which these two characters fuel each other’s impatience and sexual appetite, dragging everyone else into the inferno. And then there’s the aftermath, the recriminations, the guilt, the self-loathing and the latent cruelty that spills out onto poor Madame Raquin. And in the meantime the domino evenings become a hypocritical travesty, a painful pantomime.
This is an exquisite riveting production with top-notch acting blended with Zola’s understanding of human nature. From the highs and lows of passion to the abject cruelty and inhumanity that plays out in the Raquins’ household, this is a feast for Zola fans. Keep your eyes open for Alan Rickman in a fairly small role.
Now if someone would just release the 1968 BBC version of Nana on DVD….