Here’s a late, almost completely forgotten contender for the pretty short ‘film better than the book’ list.
Writer/director (and son of Richard) Damian Harris’s ‘The Rachel Papers’, based on Martin Amis’s 1973 debut novel, crept out in May 1989 to mediocre reviews and underwhelming business.
At the time, the post-‘Mission’, pre-‘Four Weddings’ British film industry was in its latest rut, unsure of its place in the global marketplace and reeling from massive government cuts.
But somehow ‘The Rachel Papers’ movie remains true to Amis’s irreverent, adolescent, sweary, very ‘London’ vision, while understandably playing down the overt racism, sexism and druggier aspects of the novel.
The plot centres around Charles Highway, a precocious, upper-middle-class tyke on the cusp of his 20th birthday. He’s no virgin (the title alludes to the secret ‘research files’ he keeps on all his previous conquests) but is desperate to sleep with an older woman before he hits his twenties.
The lovely, intelligent, well-bred Rachel seems to fit the bill perfectly, but Charles gets a lot more than he bargains for when he pursues her. Falling in love wasn’t part of the plan, etc, etc… He also has to contend with Rachel’s on/off American boyfriend DeForest. Charles does a fair bit of learning and ‘growing’, but with an agreeable lightness of touch. Most importantly, the movie rattles along at a good lick.
I came across ‘The Rachel Papers’ completely by chance in the early ’90s when I was almost exactly Charles’s age, and it rang a lot of bells. Watching it again recently, I was pleased how well it stands up whilst obviously being very much of its time. The movie lives or dies by the casting of the Charles character – Dexter Fletcher does his best but wouldn’t seem a natural fit for the role. For a start, he looks barely older than 15. Where was Hugh Grant when Harris needed him?
Often breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to camera, Charles is a fusion of Ferris Bueller and Alfie, basically a cocky, rather spoilt little prick with, as it turns out, a few deep-rooted insecurities. In Amis’s book, Rachel isn’t American – the casting of Ione Skye was apparently a studio-imposed decision, but it doesn’t upset the balance of the film at all. She does a great job in an underwritten role. She’s a fresh, natural, uplifting presence, carrying on from where she left off in the classic ‘Say Anything’. James Spader delivers a typically superb performance as DeForest, mining the same smarmy, condescending schtick he so memorably employed in ‘Pretty In Pink’.
The film is also chock-a-block with other memorable character turns – Jonathan Pryce, Michael Gambon, Lesley Sharp, Aubrey Morris, Gina McKee and Claire Skinner do some great work, particularly Gambon as an amusingly-off-hand university interviewer. Ian Dury’s right-hand-man Chaz Jankel does a decent job with the soundtrack on top of some choice contributions from Shakespears Sister and John Martyn.
In the final analysis, ‘The Rachel Papers’ is the only Brit romcom I’ve seen that approaches something like ‘The Sure Thing’.
It’s irreverent and unpretentious but certainly not dumb, a fairly accurate portrait of late-’80s London, bringing an appealing cheerfulness to the city without resorting to picture-postcard clichés (there’s not a shot of Big Ben or Trafalgar Square in sight). The sexual politics and shenanigans are also refreshingly upfront.
It’s surely due a remake – the recent ‘Don John’ seems to touch on similar areas but looks like somewhat of a disaster area if the trailer is anything to go by. Don’t judge ‘The Rachel Papers’ by the trailer either, though, by the way…