Monday, September 11, 2006

The Deep End, Light in the Piazza and Snow Cake

Some thoughts on recent viewings:

[The Deep End (Scott McGehee & David Siegel, 2001): A remake of Max Ophuls' 1949 film The Reckless Moment, this alternative version of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's novel of secrets and blackmail is clearly aiming for the type of feeling I love in my thrillers: slow-burning, gradually created thrills. But the story seems so predictable, and the characters so trite, that it's difficult to get involved. Tilda Swinton gives a solid, if frosty performance as a mother who is desperate to hide her oldest son's budding homosexuality, an aim made difficult when his lover (a short role for an impressively creepy Josh Lucas) is accidentally killed at their lake-side Taho home, and then a blackmailer (Goran Visnjic) turns up with a tape showing the pair en flagrante and a demand of $50,000. McGehee and Siegel draw an impressive desperation in Swinton's attempts to balance the demands of this blackmailing and Visnjic's increasing attention to her with the day-to-day tasks of a mother, but the thriller elements of the film fail on almost every count, and it's not helped at all by the story's strong inclinations towards romantic attraction between Swinton and Visnjic. There's a surprisingly engaging performance from young Jonathan Tucker as the aforementioned son, but the story never has a strong enough pull and the cast don't seem to be able to overcome it. McGehee and Siegel fared much better four years later with their enormously underrated Bee Season, which also turned it's attentions towards family life but was thankfully free of any attempts to thrill. Grade: C+]

[Light in the Piazza (Guy Green, 1962): This adaptation of Elisabeth Spencer's book is a strange concuction, framing it's entire story on an accident we never witness and then almost refusing to answer it's implications at all. An weary-looking Olivia de Havilland is fantastic as Meg Johnston, a wealthy American staying in Florence with her daughter Clara (Yvette Mimieux), whom she has taken away from the distractions of American boys because, as we quickly discover, Clara fell off her pony at a young age and is stuck with the mental age of 10. Nevertheless, her natural beauty soon attracts the attentions of a wealthy local boy, played by the much derided American George Hamilton in a highly convincing performance (complete with accent), and they fall in love. Meg is, of course, worried about this development, but, as she begins to see the possible realisation of her fantasy for her daughter, she stumbles and is reluctant to force them apart. This little seen film clearly wants you to embed yourself in it's more unusual dramatic elements, and indeed, interludes like the visit of Clara's father show us the darker effects of Clara's mental state, but ultimately it's just a sweet little romance and on this level, it succeeds. Mimieux and Hamilton make a charming pairing and it's almost impossible not to get swept up in the situation, especially with such a talent as de Hallivand to keep you watching. Perhaps the ultimate glossing over of what was for most of the film the central dilemma is a bit worrying, but this a pleasant, nicely shot and well performed film that would serve well for a Saturday afternoon. Grade: B-]

[Snow Cake (Marc Evans, 2006): This effort from Welsh director Marc Evans was financed entirely by the UK and Canada, and this low-budget, under-the-radar situation is perhaps, and unfortunately, going to lead to the overlooking of it's star Sigourney Weaver once again come awards season. This film rests pretty much on her shoulders, as she beautifully plays autistic woman Linda Freeman, whose response to a consolation on her daughter's death is a straightforward "I haven't lost her, she's dead", shocking the woman who offered this softened apology in the first place. Ostentatiously, I suppose, Snow Cake is about Alex Hughes, played by a subdued and uneven Alan Rickman, who was giving Linda's daughter (a bright Emily Hampshire) a lift when a truck hits the car and kills her but leaves him virtually unmarked. His guilt leads him to her mother's home, where her offbeat approach to human engagement leads to him staying with her until after the funeral. The film's strenght comes in the relationship between Weaver and Rickman, which, due to Linda's autism is constantly surprising and unpredictable, and often remarkably charming (in scenes such as Linda's "comic-book Scrabble"). Evans, or rather screenwriter Angela Pell trips herself up with an unnecessary subplot involving Rickman's involvement with Weaver's neighbour Carrie-Anne Moss (in a pleasant and natural but totally unneeded performance), and with the revelations involving Rickman's damaged past, but Weaver's performance is a marvel and alone makes the film worth the price of admission. Given a more approachable form of autism than Dustin Hoffman's famous role, she could easily coast through the role, but each moment is invested with a weighty darkness, unlikely coupled with a delightful child-like exterior. Grade: B]

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