Thérèse Raquin (1980 BBC)

The picture quality on this DVD has the resolution of a fading VHS tape from 30 years ago, and if this truly is the best restoration that can be made of this 166-minute production, that must be counted as a minor but distinct tragedy…for actress Kate Nelligan is the Thérèse Raquin to end all Thérèse Raquins. Based on the Zola novel, this is the story of a vibrant but trapped young woman, stuck in a loveless marriage to a pampered weakling. Then one day, the husband brings home an old friend–Laurent– and the doors of her soul fly open.

She and Laurent embark on a reckless, sexually abandoned relationship, in which she gives vent to all her resentment and rage at her husband and mother-in-law, and it’s just a small leap from there that they’re planning the perfect murder. Of Nelligan’s performance, what more can be said but that it’s the sort of thing one sees and doesn’t forget for over 30 years. When the story 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 & steady Madame Raquin (Mona Washbourne)–a woman who coddles 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.

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.

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.

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