It's when she speaks that she allows this depiction of intrigue and betrayal in pre-Revolutionary France to slacken. As Hampton has written La Marquise, she has a cunning smile, but it's crucial that her eyes and voice also indicate a stone heart. The dramatist wants this female Iago to leave patrons gaping and gasping; and anything less than that from someone who declares her favorite word to be "cruelty" means the play is unable to achieve the quiet terror it's capable of conjuring. Unfortunately, too much of the time that Linney is talking, as she glides across the stage like a glacier inching south, she chips away at Madame Merteuil's inflexibility and dastardly determination. When she chats of "cruelty," you think she's only having a little joke. Only towards the late scenes does she rise to the kind of vocal ruthlessness that sends drawing-room temperatures plummeting.
Luckily, almost everything else adorning this fable about the wanton destruction of innocence has the same cutting edge suggested by sound designer Paul Arditti's final effect: the guillotine that put an end to bored aristocrats undermining one another. Madame Merteuil's accomplice in her plot to take revenge on an ex-lover -- by ruining 15-year-old Cecile Volanges (Mamie Gummer) -- is the equally cunning Le Vicomte de Valmont, played by British actor Ben Daniels as debauchery in tight breeches. Although he stops short of licking his lips, Daniels doesn't scant on the leers. It also doesn't hurt matters that he strongly resembles Alan Rickman, who played the part in the original 1986 Broadway production.
Gummer -- who resembles mama Meryl Streep -- outstandingly plays Cecile as a dull-witted but nubile adolescent whose defiling is wrenching, yet who's resilient enough to be eager for more. (Anyone wondering why she's wearing bright yellow might want to take a peek at Jean-Honore Fragonard's erotic painting "The Lock" in which a bullish rogue has his way with a yellow-clad maiden.) The beautiful Jessica Collins, as La Presidente de Tourvel, a pious woman who becomes the object of Valmont's need to sully anything in full skirts that crosses his path, also successfully conveys goodness under duress.
Sian Phillips, in a grey fright-wig and grey satin matron's ensemble, is her usual accomplished self as Valmont's aunt, Madame de Rosemonde, and Kristine Nielsen is her usual slightly loony self as Cecile's thick-headed mother, Madame de Volanges. As Le Chevalier Danceny -- the young man whom the scheming Merteuil and Valmont don't want Cecile to marry -- Benjamin Walker has callow and well-meaning down pat.
As to the play itself, period pieces of this sort are often concocted as oblique references to problems rampant in contemporary times. Perhaps, two decades ago, the British-born Hampton saw such unmonitored instances of brittle modern sophisticates tampering with other lives and eroding their own. But the relevance to today now seems flimsy. On its own, however, this incarnation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses is still diabolical fun.
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