'Rosemary's Baby' returns

'Rosemary's Baby' returns

The new version of Rosemary’s Baby, a two-part television miniseries, is shot as a straightforward horror-thriller, without the wit and paranoia of the original Roman Polanski classic.

This is doubly disappointing, because for the first twenty minutes, this new remake promises to be at least an honourable failure surprising us with fresh variations on the story. 

But less than halfway into the plot what we mistook for inventiveness shows up to be only an effort at not wanting to come across as a familiar, perfunctory remake. The remake simply surrenders all its freshness to the mechanics of the original plot but alas without the subtle flair Polanski brought to every aspect of Ira Levin’s masterful suspense-horror novel. 

The story is now set in Paris, in the present day, and Rosemary Wodehouse is a gorgeous young African American (Zoe Saldana) married to an academic, who teaches at the Sorbonne. Guy Wodehouse (Patrick Adams) wants to be more than just a professor of English Literature: he has ambitions to become an eminent  writer. But so far he hasn’t got anywhere. They live in a tiny Parisian apartment where the closet also doubles as a kitchen. 

Rosemary discovers she is pregnant (you might think this is a huge jump in the story at this early a point, but it isn’t as you’ll see) but miscarries and goes into a deep funk.  And then, one day, a little accident brings the Wodehouses into the lives of the Castevetes, Roman and Margaux (Mini in the original, here inexplicably changed, and played by Jason Isaacs and Carole Bouquet) a wealthy, debonair high-society couple, who warmly embrace them into their circle and offer them the use of an empty apartment in their building (which happens to be the most prized address in Paris).

 This apartment building has gargoyles peering out at the city from the rooftop. (Nice touch; the setting of the Polanski original was in the famous New York Dakota building which had gargoyles). 

While Rosemary is a little cautious about warming up to the Castevet couple, Guy has taken to spending a lot of time with them, especially Roman, who becomes something of a mentor to him. Rosemary spends her time hanging out with her oldest and dearest friend, Julie (Chirstine Cole), an English woman, who thinks it’s insane that the Castevets would rent them an apartment in the most exclusive address in Paris for next to nothing. 

Guy begins to experience all kinds of successes — becomes head of department (after the old head stabs herself in the neck) and even begins writing his novel. Roman and Margaux watch proudly from afar. 

Guy suggests they should try for a baby again, and Rosemary is delighted. On the day of ‘baby night’, Rosemary’s nightmare begins. All these early flourishes make this new remake a worthwhile enterprise — until it all unravels into another wasted, ineffectual updating of a classic. Paris is a nice touch, the English-woman friend is another nice touch replacing Hutch, her kindly but clever guardian angel from the original; perhaps the best touch is making the Castevets a hip, handsome couple who can truly be more their friends than the old couple from the original. But with these few flourishes, the remake runs out of ideas.

Making Guy a writer and not an actor doesn’t work in the department of a self-absorbed, selfish, ruthlessly ambitious theatre-actor that was Guy from the original, played so convincingly and arrestingly by the experimental actor John Cassavetes. Except for one casting coup here, Carole Bouquet as Marguax Castevet, the rest of the actors are a misfit. Especially Adams as Guy, a hopelessly untalented actor in a demanding role. 

Jason Isaacs has little to do except look suave and sinister. Zoe Saldana is lovely to look at but doesn’t bring one tenth of the paranoia and hysteria Mia Farrow brought to the role of Rosemary, the young mother who thinks her neighbours are modern-day witches plotting to steal and eat her baby. Perhaps the worst mistake of all that this remake makes is to make the horror literal. The great thing about Ira Levin’s book and Roman Polanski film version is how the horror is only suggested. 

Look closely at the book and the movie, and you will see that right up to the end, everything that unfolds can still be viewed as Rosemary’s paranoia. Yes, perhaps she did have crazy, devil-worshipping neighbours who thought they were witches, but the rest of it — the gruesome deaths, being raped by Satan and giving birth to his son, and being the mother of the Anti-Christ could all (conceivably) be Rosemary’s paranoia. 

What it comes down to is this: if you want to believe it was all real, you could, and if you thought that it was all happening just inside  Rosemary’s head, you could think that too! That was Ira Levin’s brilliance, and Polanski respected and understood that. Neither Levin or Polanski believed in God or Satan; they were interested in suspense, the see-sawing suspense that comes from paranoia. Is there really a plot against me or am I imagining it? (Paranoia has also been described as ‘absolute awareness’).Another puzzling piece about the remake is that the credits declare this is also based on Levin’s Son of Rosemary, a sequel he wrote decades later.

 But there’s nothing from Son of Rosemary here. I know that sequel very well, and I can’t see a single point of plot or detail from the second book in this remake. Director Agnieszka Holland fails most when she repeats scenes from Polanski: Rosemary eating a raw, bloody chicken heart and liver, the ‘baby day’ nightmare, and most of the final scenes, all of which lack the style, wit, dread and suspense of Polanski’s direction. 

The new Rosemary’s Baby could have been a smart, thrilling update but after a brilliant start, it squanders away all its bright promises and descends into literalness and gore. You’ve forgotten it almost as soon as you’ve seen it.