Director: Mike Hodges
Writer: Mike Hodges
Producers: John Quested, Geoffrey Helman
Composer: John Scott
Production Companies: Goldcrest Films Ltd.
Principal Cast: Rosanna Arquette, Jason Robards, Tom Hulce, Mark Joy, Ron Rosenthal, John Bennes, Linda Pierce, Olek Krupa
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A delicate, haunting and grossly under-rated supernatural thriller, well acted by a talented cast and sensitively directed. Arquette is outstanding as the haunted Martha, initially angered and embarrassed by her duplicitous ways and later terrified by the sudden development of what appear to be real psychic abilities. She brings a vulnerability to her performance and carries off a difficult role with more style and conviction than any of her previous performances had even hinted at. Her melancholy lament on the state of the human condition is particularly effective and a fine example of some of the many ideas and themes that inform Hodges script:
"Why does everything serious have to be turned into entertainment? Politics, wars, famines, space shuttles... they're all just variety acts on TV... I don't see over there at the end of the rainbow any longer. Instead I see wasted diseases, cancers... symptoms of our own self destruction. It haunts me. And it's getting worse. We don't understand what we're doing."
Robards is also excellent in a role that fits him like a glove, taking comfort in the spirits of both the bottle and the afterlife, and Hulce is eminently more watchable and likeable here than he was in the over-inflated Amadeus (1984). The complex interactions between them, particularly between Arquette and Robards, is wonderfully mapped out by Hodges and acted with intense conviction by all involved.
The film is brimming with beautiful images (let down by occasional guest appearances from mike booms and lens hoods), intelligent and witty dialogue and strange but roundly-fleshed out supporting and cameo characters - Silas, the crazy old chairman of the chemical company, who believes that "not only did I own chemical plants I lived in one" and has his private nurse take his urine and faeces samples for examination; the travelling preacher who warns "we steal if we touch tomorrow - it is God's"; and the bland company hitman who returns home to play the loving father to his four young children.
As well as 'traditional' characters, Time plays an important if rather arcane role in the development of the plot. Martha seems somehow to have become - to use Kurt Vonnegut's memorable expression - 'unstuck in time', indeed may even exist outside of time altogether; "Time is only a human concept," Martha tells one of her audience, "something to make things real for us". Near the beginning of the film, she mistakenly wakes her father from his afternoon nap two hours early, firmly convinced that it is six o'clock and not four. Her visions temporarily transport her into the immediate future as a helpless onlooker. And at the climax, she is completely lost in time, her youth stolen, her life ruined by her ability to mentally skip across the stream of time and bring back images too shocking for her or anyone else to successfully deal with. Other characters seem equally lost in time, including the corrupt police detective who thought he saw Wallace's mother at a fair the previous month, two years after her death.
Counting against the film are some annoying lapses in plotting - the situation involving the crooked Silas, for example, is never really resolved, and the whole conspiracy episode is all too conveniently glossed over. Interesting insights into Silas' character (he callously allows men in his employ to murder or be killed through his negligence but still finds time to exercise his deeply held religious beliefs by piously preaching in church) are blithely ignored and both he and his doings are a major irritation that are simply not properly addressed.
Unfairly criticised in some quarters for its leisurely, measured pace, Black Rainbow is one of the most intelligent and thought-provoking of the psychic phenomena movies that proliferated briefly at the end of the 1980s. It bravely refuses to bow to genre conventions, embarking instead on a multi-threaded treatise on theology, belief, fear and exploitation, themes that Hodges explores with no concessions to the action-happy mentality of the average late 80s cinemagoer, raised on a steady diet of entertaining but superficial blockbusters. Aided enormously by the central performances (especially Robards and Arquette, the latter in particular being something of a revelation), Hodges manages the commendable job of creating a subtle and chilling thriller that follows its own course and dares to be off-beat, original and intelligent.