How much can a person be fooled by what they want to see? That’s the central question of Original Sin, writer-director Michael Cristofer’s adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s Waltz into Darkness. (François Truffaut previously transformed the same noir novel into Mississippi Mermaid.)
It’s the cusp of the 20th century and coffee plantation owner Luis Antonio Vargas (Antonio Banderas) wants to bring a jolt of forward-thinking Americanism to his corner of Cuba, a country enmeshed in the traditions and rituals of the past. So he courts a mail-order bride who represents steadfastness with a dash of adventure. What he gets is Julia Russell (Angelina Jolie), who’s much more intriguing and alluring than he could have imagined.
Although he aims to be a pragmatist, Luis’ dormant romantic side begins to bloom when she enters his life. Sure, it’s strange that she’s nothing like her prim letters suggest, but Julia has an acceptable explanation: She lied and made herself seem more dowdy (even sending him another woman’s picture) so that he’d desire her inner beauty.
Shouldn’t Luis be more wary of her story? Cristofer suggests that it’s the blinding effect of love overtaking a man who never believed he would feel it, and that theory almost works to cover up the gaps in logic which mar the pretty picture of Original Sin.
When connubial bliss turns out to be short-lived — Julia disappears, along with much of Luis’ fortune — a suspiciously accommodating private detective (Thomas Jane) offers to track her. It’s here that Original Sin begins down a twisting path where betrayal is the least complicated action. Suffice it to say that Luis hasn’t seen the last of his errant bride and that Julia will reinvent herself a few more times before the story’s conclusion.
Cristofer (who directed Jolie in Gia, her breakthrough role) is excellent at capturing the heat generated by this charismatic duo, and using the steamy locale to heighten their intoxicating passion. (Mexico stands in for the off-limits Cuba.) What he’s incapable of is making this cat-and-mouse tale more than just an exotic curiosity about love inexplicably conquering all.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.