Revolution / Absolute Beginners

A tale of two movies: both English-made, both lavishly produced, both abandoned by their studios. And, despite being dumped, they both happen to have arrived hereabouts at the same time.

Other than that, they couldn’t be more different in style and subject matter. Revolution is the big-budget (rumored in the $30 million range) historical epic with prestige credentials and a name cast; Absolute Beginners is a glitzy musical with unknown stars guided by a music-video director. Worlds apart, they both managed to inspire cold feet among their initial backers.

Revolution has been a well-publicized fiasco. When the film played in New York and Los Angeles late last year to qualify for Academy Award consideration, critics reacted with the kind of venom usually reserved for Benedict Arnold. Needless to say, the movie failed to snag any nominations, and its national release was postponed and then scrapped.

With that in mind, it’s hard not to root for the film—it couldn’t be that bad, right?

Well it’s not, not really, and there are individual scenes that carry considerable power. All through at least the first hour, as we’re introduced to the story of a Scot (Al Pacino) who, with his son, is reluctantly dragged into the Revolutionary war, the film is actually quite compelling.

It’s only later that the sketchiness of some of the characterizations takes its toll. Events are so telescoped, and characters glimpsed so hastily, that they don’t pay off as they should. We know that we should like the American lass (Nastassia Kinski) who loves Pacino, and that we should hate the British officer (Donald Sutherland) whose facial birthmark sprouts hair. But it doesn’t cut deeply enough.

Hugh Hudson, who nobly guided Chariots of Fire, can’t quite triumph over the shorthand and the humorlessness of Robert Dillon’s script. He’s certainly got an eye for spectacle, evidenced by the magnificent scenery filmed in Britain.

Absolute Beginners, from music-video maestro Julian Temple (he did David Bowie’s “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean”), is a high-kicking nostalgia piece set during the music revolution in England in 1958. The plot, from the novel by Colin MacInnes, hinges on a youthful photographer (Eddie O’Connell) and his sometime girlfriend (Patsy Kensit, rumored to be “The British Madonna”), who are the first generation known as teenagers.

The film celebrates the fact that music helped define this new age classification, and the music in the film (arranged by Gil Evans) is just splendid; it includes a few heavyweight turns, including Bowie, Ray Davies, and Sade. It’s all performed on wonderfully artificial sets, and the characters have very stylized movements and clothes.

Temple manages to sustain the manic energy of a music video over the running time of the film but, miraculously, doesn’t wear you down. This, I think, is because there’s such an air of enthusiasm about the film—Temple uses the camera and the soundtrack like a kid experimenting in a magic store.

His story wanders and then seeks relevancy in the race riots of the time. It probably doesn’t make perfect sense, if you bothered to examine it. But the film is so much fun to watch, you may find yourself asking: Why bother?

First published in the Herald, May 22, 1986

Revolution was a huge disaster; IMDb claims, unsourced, that it literally set the British film industry back by a decade. I don’t know if this review is missing a paragraph that explains the setting of the movie, but I had to insert [Revolutionary] before “the war” just now, in the hope that readers won’t be completely bewildered, or as bewildered as the audience watching the movie apparently was.

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