The Fall of Mr Madonna

Once he was cinema's hottest property. But critics say his new film, which opened last night, is a total turkey. So is Guy Ritchie's obsession with Kabbalah or being under his wife's thumb to blame?

The Daily Mail/September 21, 2005
By Daniel E. Martin

When Guy Ritchie directed his wife Madonna in the film Swept Away, the critics had a field day, labelling it one of the biggest turkeys of all time. But three years on, Ritchie has apparently done the impossible - and made an even worse one.

If the reaction of critics is anything to go by, Revolver, his long-awaited fourth film, could well be the final nail in the coffin of his once-glittering career. The movie has been savaged by reviewers, who predict it will bomb with cinema-goers after premiering in London last night.

A 'convoluted, risibly overwrought muddle', was one verdict. 'Might even outdo Swept Away as his worst film yet,' was another.

Many of the 2,000 people at a preview of the crime thriller during the Toronto Film Festival last weekend left in silence, having been, according to one who was there, 'absolutely dumbstruck by two hours of sheer nonsense'.

Hours earlier, Madonna, her arm in a sling following her riding accident, had stood alongside her husband and declared his new movie his best yet. The critics, however, accused the film of 'spinning wildly in circles', and warned audiences will be left bewildered and disappointed.

Not that the years - or mistakes - appear to have made Ritchie any more comfortable with criticism. When Jonathan Ross mildy put it to him on Film 2005 that the plot was not the easiest to follow, Ritchie snapped: 'Clever people get it.' But by far the film's biggest drawback - and maybe most damaging for Ritchie's career - is its plugging of Kabbalah, the controversial branch of Judaism of which Ritchie and his wife are fervent disciples.

Despite being ostensibly about gambling and the underworld - the staple Ritchie milieu - Revolver is full of obscure references to the teachings of the Kabbalah Centre, a cult-like organisation heavily funded by Madonna.

The religion - which is based on a branch of Judaism dating back 4,000 years but has been denounced by some rabbis as crackpot mysticism - claims it is the source of all spiritual wisdom and will help its followers translate the secret laws of the universe and experience fulfilment.

Ritchie's devotion has already cost him, with Sony Films reported to have withdrawn support for Revolver when he refused to tone down religious references.

His determination to spread the faith is, say insiders, one of the reasons the film was so long in the making. He is even said to have had a rabbi accompany him to studio meetings.

Any hopes 37-year-old Ritchie may have harboured that his latest offering would erase the embarrassment of his previous film have not been realised.

Quite the opposite has occurred, with Revolver's reception reminding everyone it has been five years since he made a decent film.

It also poses the question: can he do anything else but gangster films? And, just as importantly, is he allowing the influence of his wife and her bizarre beliefs to cloud his professional judgment?

Ritchie has certainly seen his credibility slide dramatically in Hollywood in recent years.

Seemingly unable to recreate the magic of his debut film Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, he is considered by some to be too much under the thumb of his wife and the Kabbalah Centre.

It is an impression that his new film, with its strange mentions of numbers and bizarre references to 'ego versus the light', will do little to dispel.

(Kabbalah is often linked to numerology and being 'in the light' is part of the teachings of the Kabbalah Centre.) Madonna first revealed her devotion to Kabbalah when she credited its founder, Philip Berg, with 'creative guidance' on her 1998 album Ray Of Light.

Widespread criticism of the organisation and its secretive founder has not deterred Madonna from handing over a large chunk of her Pounds 220 million fortune. She paid for Kabbalah's Pounds 3.5million London headquarters and is believed to have donated Pounds 16million in recent years.

Other revenue is raised from the sale of dubious merchandise, such as an Pounds 18 red string wristband and special water costing Pounds 2.80 a bottle. And the path to what the organisation's leaders call 'the divine light' does not come cheap. Visitors to the London HQ are asked to pay Pounds 151 for an initial consultation.

Rabbi Berg himself is a controversial figure. Among his many wild claims is the assertion that a 'positive flow of energy' can cure illness and make people rich, and that Jews would have survived the Holocaust had they only studied Kabbalah.

Rick Ross, a New York-based cult investigator who believes the Kabbalah Centre is a sinister sect that bears little relation to the ancient and respected faith, has accused Berg of preying on the vulnerable and foolish.

'What Madonna and Guy Ritchie consider Kabbalah is not accepted by respected scholars of Jewish mysticism,' he points out. 'And the fact Guy Ritchie's film is being dismissed as an advertisement for Philip Berg and his Kabbalah Centre shows that his artistic and creative abilities have been affected.

'Madonna is convalescing with broken bones and Guy is facing his second film flop - their careers are both on downward spirals. Whatever the Kabbalah Centre is selling is not working.' Initially, Ritchie was less than enthusiastic. According to a friend of the director, who despite being public-school educated feigns a Cockney accent, used to delight in calling the whole thing: 'A load of Kabbalahs'.

However his 'conversion' has led to friction with friends who feel edged out of the couple's lives because of scepticism over their religious fervour.

And it is a measure of how far Ritchie's stock has slipped that Vinnie Jones, the footballerturned-actor who has Ritchie to thank for launching his Hollywood career, is said to have turned down a role in the new film, despite the lure of a huge fee.

This has fuelled speculation that the pair's once-close friendship has cooled, thanks to Guy's obsession with Kabbalah.

As one of Ritchie's former shooting buddies, Jones is said to be frustrated that Guy has turned his back on the group who had regular shoots at the Ritchies' Pounds 9 million country estate - Ashcombe House, in Wiltshire - put off by Kabbalah's teachings that the souls of dead pheasants might come back to haunt him.

One of Ritchie's former friends said: 'Guy used to be one of the boys, but when Madonna refused to shoot any more, he just stopped. Some of his friends think he caved in to her, but he had also become really committed to Kabbalah.' But despite the couple's shared obedience to their new faith, it has not had a beneficial effect on their marriage, say friends. Some point to a shift in the balance of power between them as a result of Guy's acquiescence .

'When they met, Guy was the bright young thing of cinema.

Madonna was attracted to his success and the way he treated her as an equal. The relationship has always been a sparring match between two large egos, but since Guy bought into Kabbalah he appears to have weakened.' This isn't the first time Madonna has been blamed for a dramatic slide in her husband's standing in the film industry.

Some even go so far as to talk of the 'curse of Madonna', pointing to the ignominy faced by her first husband, actor Sean Penn, after their marriage in 1985.

'Madonna certainly wasn't a blessing to Penn's career,' says a showbusiness source. 'His career suffered very badly and it was pretty much a parallel to what's happened with Guy Ritchie.

'Guy was a successful, upandcoming director. His career looked bright, but she seemed to do the same thing to him as she did to Sean Penn - use his career to try to improve her own.' Like Penn, who was divorced from Madonna in 1989 after four turbulent years, Ritchie also proved powerless in the face of his wife's insistence that they should make a film together.

Just as Penn capitulated to Madonna's demands and co-starred with her in the much-derided Shanghai Surprise, Ritchie fell victim to the same pressure.

He cast her in Swept Away, despite it leading to a falling out with his friend and partner Matthew Vaughn, who favoured Penelope Cruz.

This decision had farreaching consequences for Ritchie's hitherto golden career.

Panned in America, the film went straight to video in Britain, losing him Pounds 7 million in the process. Three years on, he is still reeling.

'I took a punt and got a kicking for it,' he said only last week. 'I think it's a good film and I'm scratching my head about what went wrong.' He will no doubt be left scratching his head again. But while fans may be disappointed by his latest offering, which stars Jason Statham as a gambler and Ray Liotta as a gangland boss, there will doubtless be no shortage of people queuing up to gloat.

Those who have worked with Ritchie in the past say that, like many who achieve overnight success, he has been guilty of allowing fame to go to his head. As a result he has made his share of enemies in the film business.

One such figure is Dave Wirtschafter, boss of the influential William Morris Agency in Los Angeles. Wirtschafter, who says he considered Ritchie a friend as well as a client until Ritchie sacked him, launched a bitter attack on him earlier this year.

'Guy Ritchie is not in the groovy, glamorous place he was then, and I think that's just unequivocally interesting, as karma,' he said. Which in a translation from Hollywood- speak means: 'Serves him right.' THE BAD publicity surrounding his new film has, say friends, devastated Ritchie. But they hope it may yet bring him to his senses and open his eyes to the damage Kabbalah is doing.

Indeed, according to reports this week, he may already be on the verge of turning his back on the religion, after apparently telling friends he has wasted too much time on it.

But if he does quit Kabbalah, it will undoubtedly set him on a collision course with his wife.

'Guy may finally be realising that there is a cost to be paid for his involvement with the Kabbalah Centre, but if he walks away it could be the end of his marriage,' warns Rick Ross.

'If he decides he doesn't want to go to the Centre anymore, he will be deemed to be outside of the light and Madonna will probably be advised to continue with them and not with him.

'Guy is at a crossroads. If he breaks away from the Kabbalah Centre and the shadow of Madonna, then maybe he has another shot at Hollywood. But it could cost him his marriage.

'Unless Madonna rethinks her commitment, which at this point seems very unlikely, she will remain loyal to Kabbalah. And there is no way she will tolerate him being outside of the light.'

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