Basil (1998) is obviously a labour of love for writer/director Radha Bharadwaj. Based on a Wilkie Collins novel, the story contains all the dramatic elements often found in this Victorian author’s works–an inheritance, a dirty family secret, illegitimacy, and deception in love. It’s a good idea to keep in mind that Collins was known as a writer of ‘sensation novels’ during his lifetime. The Lady in White and The Moonstone, which are his best-remembered novels have been adapted to the screen several times, and so I couldn’t resist watching a version of Basil.
The first scene of Basil depicts the ruins of Windermere–the family home in Cornwall. We know from the neglect of the house–both inside and out, that something bad has happened. Then it’s a zip back to Basil (Jackson Leach) as a tiny tot in a carriage rattling along to Cornwall with his father Frederick (Derek Jacoby), mother Agnes (Joanna John), and elder brother Ralph (Crispin Bonham-Carter). With the father sitting on one side of the carriage looking annoyed and bored to tears, sweet-faced, gentle Agnes and her two sons sit opposite. Frederick is distant and tuned out for the most part, but he rouses from his reverie just in time to hear little Basil telling one of his stories about a ‘masked man.’ Frederick tells his son off–imagination is, apparently, to this strict Victorian father, yet another deadly sin. And now that Frederick is roused enough to pay attention to his family, he delivers a lecture that one day Windermere will belong to Ralph, and that if little Basil is very good, he’ll will be “allowed to visit.”
This early scene, so very well constructed, sets the scene for the family dynamic that unfolds. Frederick is a cold and harsh father while Agnes overcompensates, and that sets the boys in the middle, wanting to please their father but afraid to communicate with him.
The film follows the fate of Ralph and Basil and their respective tragic love affairs into adulthood. Jared Leto plays the adult Basil, and he’s a lonely young man who’s destined to learn some hard lessons. Christian Slater appears as John Mannion, a young man who befriends Basil. Claire Forlani is the beautiful Julia Sherwin (Margaret in the book), the daughter of a London merchant who captivates Basil when he first meets her. The scenes leading up to and including Basil’s meeting with Julia were quite beautiful.
The first half of the film was very strong and quite promising, but then as the story unfolds, it seemed to unravel–perhaps this was due to the time slot dictated by the standard film format. The second half concentrates on the events that take place and there’s a lot. This revenge-driven story is replete with suicides, death by abortion, death by childbirth, tuberculosis, a mysterious hideously mutilated man, secret love affairs, secret marriages, disinheritance, and a couple of wastrel sons etc. To fit all this in the last half of a film that runs under 2 hours, well it’s enough to get your head spinning. As it stands, the second half of the film dashes along from confessions to revelations to tragic events–one event closely followed on the tail of another. This effectively emphasises the histrionics and deprives the story of necessary character development. Consequently, when characters come to their senses or face the results of their actions, the subsequent confessions and resolutions ring hollow.
The director’s cut of the film never made it to the screen or to DVD, and that’s unfortunate and frustrating.