Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri May 09, 2003 2:18 pm 
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Rashomon, English style

"Lawless Heart" is among other things a skillful compromise between gay and straight stories. It may grow out of the reasonable presumption that gay men understand emotion better than most straights do, and that a movie that approaches general emotional experience with a gay perspective may have a more intelligent heart. "Lawless"? Well, that's because as the French say, "The heart has its reasons that the reason does not know." This small English film has met with almost universal acclaim. The only quibbles come from the tripartite narrative structure. The unity of the action and characters hinges on its all happening in a small seacoast town in Essex where everyone runs into each other at shops and parties.

We begin at a post-funeral reception where Dan (Bill Nighy) is being chatted up by a French woman named Corinne (Clémentine Célarié). He seems to want to avoid revealing anything, starting with his relation to the deceased, but in a moment somehow there's a flirtation going on. The exchange is a witty exploration of the abstract possibilities of spontaneous talk among strangers. One wishes there were more such conversations, but if most of the dialogue that follows is more ponderous, perhaps it has to be, because "Lawless Heart" contains a lot of narrative development. Every character has a story that intertwines with others and people are looking for love in All the Wrong Places as well as grappling with some of Life's Deeper Issues.

At the center is the aforementioned Dan, whose wife Judy (Ellie Haddington) was the deceased Stuart's sister. Then there's Nick (Tom Hollander), Stuart's bereaved lover and partner in his successful restaurant business. Here there's a serious financial issue: since Stuart left no will, Judy and Dan are in line for Stuart's money, but Nick needs it more, and Judy recognizes this. But Judy and Dan, who run a small farm, need it too, and Dan thinks gay men are all promiscuous and that, therefore, there was no binding tie between Nick and Stuart obliging them to help Nick.

The time frame of the first story told about Dan, who in the days following the funeral uneasily resists the temptation of a fling with Corinne, is repeated next for Nick, going back to the starting point at the funeral. We learn of a wild party given -- oddly -- just after the funeral at Nick and Stuart's house, and a girl named Charlie (Sukie Smith) who sleeps in Nick's bed, and later -- surprisingly -- becomes not only his companion and comforter but also his partner for a moment of intense and furtive sex.

Then a wild card enters, as we go back to the funeral and see the events through the eyes of a third man, Tim (Douglas Henshall), son of another farmer, a fun loving wastrel who's been away for eight years with barely a word. He's homeless and penniless and leaves a trail of mess, but his bad behavior masks a heart of gold. Tim tries to hitch up with an old girlfriend, Leah (Josephine Butler), whom he meets at the dress shop where she works. He's arranged to stay at Nick's, and throws the party there to impress Leah. What follows she sees only as a fling, because she truly loves Tim's brother by adoption, David (Stuart Laing), whose earlier affair with Leah has ended his own marriage.

It's not as messy or complicated to follow all this as it may sound. The structure allows us to pick out the threads easily by focusing on only one man -- first Dan, then Nick, then Tim -- at a time, as the other people's lives flow in and out of their three separate but overlapping stories.

After these tales, which all begin at the wake, have been told, the three men are all together with Judy at Dan and Judy's farm to watch a film of the dead Stuart. Resolution comes in the form of settling the deceased Stuart's money on Nick after all. Tim has done two good deeds: he has yielded Leah to his adopted brother, and he has urged Judy and Dan to give Stuart's money to Nick. But this doesn't absolve Tim of his essential sleaziness: he uses this fact to hit Nick up for two thousand pounds to get in on a new bar being opened in London, and perhaps pay back what he owes to his father from a failed previous venture.

There is other sleaziness: Charlie is rather sluttish, and her boyfriend tries to steal Nick's leather jacket and Stuart's fancy corkscrew at the party Tim has had the effrontery to give at Nick and Stuart's house. Sex is represented here as nothing but heads bobbing up and down and bums jerking in and out: it's all in a rush and not pretty. Though some English viewers think this film rather French, to an American viewer its blunt understatement, wry humor, and persistent mild pessimism are quintessentially English and are the chief sources of its special charm.

The weakness of "Lawless Heart's" tripartite structure is that it's not being used to get at some hidden mystery, as is the case in Kurosawa's classic "Rashomon." We're just seeing recent events from three perspectives, and the only resolution is that Nick receives Stuart's money and can move back to London from whence he came. When the speeded up photography of the shoreline reappears to herald another version of the same few days one gets a slight sinking feeling rather than the sense of excitement at coming revelation that new segments of "Rashomon" or the finale of "Ikiru" evoke.

But in the end one is won over because as the movie unreels, the stories are developed with astonishing sympathy and clarity. There's some of the sense of compromise and rueful intelligence about matters of the heart that John Schlesinger's 1971 "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" has -- if without that film's elegance and glossy style. This is a modest production, but through English understatement a great deal more is said with no hint of pretension than an American film about such topics might manage to convey. The precepts advanced -- love comes in surprising places, compromises can be noble, bad chaps can do good deeds -- are all embedded in action with an admirable fluidity. The fine ensemble acting that's long been a hallmark of English filmmaking is triumphantly present here. Hernshall may seem annoying as Nick, but his sensitivities are well revealed as his segment progresses. Nighy, though less seen and, when seen, in a role relatively static, is a marvel of believability and tight lipped revelation as the older man, Dan; and Tom Hollander is wonderfully pained and kind and grownup as the bereaved Nick.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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