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Hand That Rocks the Cradle, The

D: Curtis Hanson / 110m

Cast: Annabella Sciorra, Rebecca De Mornay, Matt McCoy, Ernie Hudson, Madeline Zima, Julianne Moore, John de Lancie

Pregnant with her second child, Claire Bartel (Sciorra) attends a routine check up and finds she has a new obstetrician, Dr Mott (de Lancie). During the examination he sexually molests her; later she reports him to the police. Further women come forward and to avoid being brought to trial, Mott kills himself. His pregnant widow (De Mornay) loses her child as a result, and while she recuperates in hospital, she learns of Claire’s involvement in her husband’s problems.

Six months pass. Claire has given birth to a baby boy, Joey. With her husband, Michael (McCoy) and young daughter Emma (Zima) they make for a happy family, but it becomes clear that Claire can’t juggle the needs of looking after their home and children as well as the part-time work she does at a garden centre. They decide to hire a nanny, and soon after, Mott’s widow, posing as Peyton Flanders, gets the job. She moves in and soon begins to undermine the Bartels’ stability: she breast feeds Joey at odd hours so that he won’t feed from Claire; she persuades Emma to keep secrets from Claire; and she intimidates Solomon (Hudson), a mentally challenged man from a local charity home who does odd jobs around the Bartels’ garden.

Peyton does her best to make Claire seem like a bad mother, and tries to upset her relationship with Michael. When Peyton suggests to Michael that they organise a surprise party for Claire, and include their friend Marlene (Moore) in the planning of it, it leads to Claire believing that Michael and Marlene are having an affair. She accuses him on the evening of the party, unaware that Marlene and the rest of their guests are in the next room. Later, Claire tells Michael that she is beginning to have her suspicions about Peyton; this leads to Peyton booby-trapping Claire’s greenhouse in an attempt to kill her. However, the next day Claire goes out instead. Meanwhile, Marlene discovers Peyton’s true identity and rushes over to tell Claire what she’s found out, but Peyton tricks her into going into the greenhouse. The booby-trap works and Marlene is killed. When Claire finds her it triggers an asthma attack that sees her hospitalised.

When she returns home Claire decides to find out why Marlene was at the house that day. She discovers the same truth about Peyton that Marlene did, and tells Michael. They confront her and she leaves… but not for long.

Hand That Rocks the Cradle, The - scene

While there have been plenty of variations on the “home invasion/cuckoo in the nest” storyline prior to the release of The Hand That Rocks the CradlePacific Heights (1990) for example – and a whole shedload of further imitations and variations since its release – Trespass (2011) anyone? – the strength of this particular movie is in its confident direction courtesy of a debuting Hanson, a career best performance from De Mornay, and one of the most impressive (and crowd-pleasing) punches in cinema history.

The basic premise is as old as the hills, but in the hands of Hanson and screenwriter Amanda Silver, it receives a jolt in the arm that elevates the material beyond the type of hokey predictability we’re used to seeing nowadays. The “examination” Claire endures at the hands of Dr Mott is still one of the most uncomfortable scenes you’re ever likely to encounter in a mainstream thriller, a testament to the staging of the scene by Hanson and de Lancie’s disturbing performance. It’s matched by the moment when Peyton stands over Joey’s crib with a cushion in her hands, the viewer unsure if she’ll really smother him. And even though we all know it’s been planted there, the discovery by Claire of a pair of Emma’s panties in Solomon’s toolbox carries a frisson that is somehow all the more effective because of what it will mean for Solomon (though the script, conveniently, lets him off rather lightly considering the allusion being made).

There are other scenes that, while not carrying such dramatic weight, still manage to hook the audience and not let go. Peyton’s machinations are well-constructed and thought out, De Mornay’s icy beauty a perfect match for the character’s psychotic nature; even when she smiles it’s unnerving. Every time she sees an opportunity to further her plans for vengeance, Hanson ratchets up the tension and keeps it there until the inevitable payoff. As the Bartels continue to find their lives falling apart around them, it’s De Mornay who remains the focus, her unsettling malevolence waiting for yet another dastardly manoeuvre to present itself. She’s a hypnotic presence, alluring yet callous (to Solomon: “Are you a retard?”), outwardly supportive yet inwardly seething, and too dangerous to live. De Mornay is impressive from start to finish, playing Peyton as a calculating whirlwind of anger and violence whose path can lead to only one outcome.

As Peyton’s main protagonist, Claire, Sciorra matches De Mornay for intensity but faces an uphill struggle in trying to keep Claire entirely likeable. The script needs her to be too susceptible at times: Peyton only has to mention that she feels something is wrong and Claire will believe her, which, while it helps to drive the narrative forward, leaves the viewer wondering when she’ll stand back and see what’s really happening. Hampered by this too convenient character trait, Sciorra nevertheless succeeds in making Claire sympathetic, and when she unleashes that punch, any doubts the viewer has had about her will evaporate there and then.

With two such compelling performances from its female leads – plus an unsurprisingly strong supporting turn from Moore – it’s a shame then that the male characters suffer in comparison. Michael is a bit of a damp squib, easily sidelined by Peyton at the crunch, and played with a degree of reticence by McCoy, as if he’d realised the character’s shortcomings at an early script reading and decided to play the role accordingly. But it’s Solomon who really drags things down, a slow-witted simpleton intelligent enough to make jokes at the Bartels’ expense, but not so intelligent as to deny an accusation of inappropriate behaviour with a child. It’s not so much a terrible performance, but a terrible and unnecessary characterisation, and the kind that nowadays would be booed or jeered off the screen.

Played out against a background of white and brightly lit interiors, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle is buoyed up by a great original score by Graeme Revell, well-lit and sometimes unnerving photography by Robert Elswit, and in the last fifteen minutes, an effectively staged showdown that benefits greatly from the editing skills of John F. Link. But above it all, Hanson directs with all the skill and confidence of somebody making their tenth movie and not their first. Whether he’s using a Louma crane to follow Peyton from the house to the greenhouse, or employing a close up when she attacks Michael, Hanson makes the right choice of shot every time, and shows an economy of style that benefits the movie throughout.

8/10 – some minor issues aside – why don’t the Bartels check Peyton’s reference?, why isn’t anyone questioned about Marlene’s death? – The Hand That Rocks the Cradle is a classy, confidently crafted thriller that touches on themes of motherhood and sacrifice while rightly focusing on Peyton’s thirst for revenge; hard-edged and nail-biting in a way that has been watered down by repetition ever since, this is a thriller that deserves to be remembered for its transgressive moments as well as its formidable performance by De Mornay.