April 25, 2012

In a small town in a bucolic patch of Yorkshire countryside, a group of friends is enjoying a dinner party. The only note of strangeness in the convivial, civilized dinner is the moodiness of one young man, who seems taken with his own thoughts.

The next day, the young man returns to the house and greets the owner. He reveals that he had not been invited by her friends to the dinner party—as she had assumed, since she had never seen him before; in fact, he knew no one there and simply bluffed his way into the house. While she is pondering the absurdity of this situation, he pulls a revolver out of his pocket, puts the barrel in his mouth, and pulls the trigger.

These are among the opening scenes of Wetherby, and the film will proceed with a complex examination of how this apparently inexplicable act came to pass. You’ve got to admit, it’s a grabby and intriguing idea; but writer-director David Hare has much more on his mind than some kind of murder mystery.

He’s after bigger fish. As with his play and movie Plenty, Hare’s concerns include the nervous spaces between people and (his favorite theme) the emotional paralysis of English people under the weight of too much civilization. Luckily for Hare, he seems to have a sense of how to make movies (this is his first directed feature), otherwise his tackling of these big issues and themes could have been clunky and awkward.

Even so, he has a tendency toward obviousness in some of his dialogue, as though the audience couldn’t catch what he was getting at otherwise.

But I list these cavils in order to better praise Wetherby, which strikes me as one of the most original films of the year. If everything in the film doesn’t go as smoothly as it might have, it’s nevertheless a scintillating experience.

Hare traces the events surrounding the suicide by going back and forth in time—from the arrival of the young stranger (Tim McInnerny), to the dinner party again, to the present, in which the schoolteacher (Vanessa Redgrave) in whose house he killed himself is trying to sort out the mystery. She is visited by a listless girl (Suzanna Hamilton) who knew the stranger at school, and by a police detective (Stuart Wilson) whose own life is not going so well.

There are also flashbacks to Redgrave’s 20-years-past love affair, which becomes more relevant as the film progresses (she is played in the flashbacks by Joely Richardson, the real-life daughter of Vanessa Redgrave). This failed romance has haunted the character ever since, and given her a common bond with the mysterious stranger: loneliness.

Hare draws all this with a delicate brush, and the film is as good to look at as it is to think about. Vanessa Redgrave is superb; she doesn’t hit a wrong note in the entire performance. Ian Holm, as usual, gives fine support, and Wilson is subtle in the unexpectedly touching role of the police officer.

The most disquieting performance is given by Tim McInnerny, in his first film role. His character, the suicide, is described as having “a blankness—a disfiguring blankness” that sums up his place in the world. McInnerny gives this character, through his acting abilities and through his unusual looks, a disturbing normalcy that sets the eerie tone for the rest of the movie.

First published in the Herald, October 22, 1985

An opening sequence that certainly puts its hooks into you. Hare keeps his hand in with movies, and directed that unsettling adaptation of The Designated Mourner.


April 24, 2012

After the kind of moronic cinematic summer we’ve just suffered through, almost anything halfway intelligent ought to be greeted with boundless gratitude.

And Plenty, the first film of a fall season highlighting seriousness (it’s the time Hollywood likes to roll out its potential Oscar nominees), is so ambitious and thoughtful, one is tempted to applaud it without objection.

That reaction may not be appropriate, because I suspect Plenty has some problems. But overall, it’s a bracing tonic for any moviegoer interested in something other than the travails of a pimply-faced teenager’s introduction to sex.

Plenty is adapted by British playwright David Hare from his hit play. It chronicles about 15 years in the life of an Englishwoman (Meryl Streep), from her war service as a spy in occupied France, through her unsatisfying existence in postwar London, an unhappy marriage to a diplomat (Charles Dance), and her increasing disability and mental illness.

The film is elliptical in development; there’s no indication of the jumps in time, except for what we catch through a news report or dialogue references. And there’s no attempt to glamorize its complex main character—she’s hardly a heroine in the traditional mold.

She spends her life trying to find meaning through a series of incidents: a handful of uninteresting jobs, a weekends-only affair with the diplomat, a purely sexual attempt to have a child without marriage (assisted by a lower-class acquaintance, well played by rock star Sting).

As she goes on, she shows a growing tendency to lose control—to indulge in behavior that simply won’t stay within the bounds of British decorum.

She seems to be searching for a heightened form of living that she knew only during the idealistic war years—and especially an intense one-night encounter with an English paratrooper (Sam Neill) behind enemy lines.

Hare has a playwright’s bent for overstating his thesis; but the vibrancy of the character he and Streep have created (the role was played on stage by Kate Nelligan) outweighs the occasional obviousness.

And although Australian Fred Schepisi would seem to be the last sort of director for this kind of material (he did Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Barbarosa—both Westerns, of a kind), he turns out to be a superb choice.

Schepisi and cameraman Ian Baker have created a powerful visual scheme; in their widescreen frames, the characters are often seen as helplessly dwarfed by landscape, or separated and isolated by architecture. These images say as much as Hare’s words about the sterility and tragedy of these stunted lives.

Schepisi gets good work from a diverse cast. Tracey Ullman, another English rock star, gives her character a warmth that Streep’s character cannot approach.

And John Gielgud is outstanding as a diplomat whose traditional Britain he sees crumbling. Gielgud gets most of the good lines, and you can’t blame Hare for that—who could resist, when Gielgud can toss out drollness that puts most “comic” actors to shame.

Plenty is an odd film, with strange rhythms unlike any other movie (excepting possibly Hare’s equally bizarre Wetherby, which hasn’t opened here yet). I suppose a lot of people won’t like it—it’s hard to get a handle on.

But by the time its luminous final scene came on, it certainly had a handle on me. For anyone who thinks movies can be something more than a colorful accompaniment to popcorn-eating, it must be seen.

First published in the Herald, September 1985

You don’t hear much talk about Schepisi (pronounced skep-see, if you do talk about him) these days, but he displayed a very distinctive eye and sensibility back then; The Devil’s Playground and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith were stunning entries in the Australian New Wave, and his first decade in Hollywood produced some fine results. A turn toward comedy in the last 20 years has resulted in very peculiar choices, and not very many funny movies (although he lent a nice touch to the HBO adaptation of Richard Russo’s Empire Falls). As for Tracey Ullmann, as far as I knew she was a rock singer then, and not primarily famed as a comedian, so lay off.