The new British invasion escalates at the movies
The British are coming…back. In case you haven’t noticed, England, during the past year, has cast a heavy shadow over Hollywood. Consider the following specimens (and probable Oscar contenders): The Remains of the Day (English butler), Much Ado About Nothing (English playwright), In the Name of the Father (British oppressing Irish), The Piano (set in the British colony of New Zealand), and The Age of Innocence (19th-century New Yorkers acting English). Now America’s burgeoning Anglophilia rolls onward with the national release of three films by popular English directors.
Whatever their virtues or flaws, Richard Attenborough’s Shadowlands, Mike Leigh’s Naked, and Stephen Frears’ The Snapper are rich evidence that cinematically, at least, there will always be an England. Many of those who feasted on Anthony Hopkins’ sublime emotional minimalism in The Remains of the Day must have wished that they could have seen Stevens, the eternal fuddy-duddy, finally declare his love to Emma Thompson’s modest housekeeper. If he’d ever mustered the courage to speak up, the film might have looked something like Shadowlands, in which Hopkins portrays yet another serenely repressed English bachelor, this time C.S. Lewis, the rationalist Christian philosopher and author of the classic Narnia children’s fables. The year is 1952. Lewis (known to his friends as Jack) is a conservative but sprightly middle-aged scholar who delivers lectures on the religious necessity of pain and love — even though he has allowed precious little of either to disturb his own heart. Then he meets Joy Gresham (Debra Winger), a ”Jewish Christian” from America who has traveled all the way to Oxford to meet the great author. She’s in love with him already — through his books — and though Lewis is swept up in her companionship, he’s too frightened to acknowledge their mutual attraction. Then a turning point arrives: Joy is diagnosed with cancer.
Shadowlands may be the most painfully civilized British tearjerker since David Lean’s Brief Encounter. Unlike that stiff-upper-lip weeper, however, Attenborough’s rather poky fable never succeeds in balancing the passions of its two shy lovebirds. Hopkins, once again, proves a master of the mood of inchoate longing. As Lewis, he shows a new vulnerability and warmth, revealing a gaze so tender it caresses everything in its path. Winger’s performance, on the other hand, is a problem, in part because her role isn’t as well defined. Is Joy meant to be a vibrant vulgarian playfully cajoling Lewis out of his repression, or a homegrown intellectual who first bonds with his mind? Winger, slipping in and out of a vaudeville-Brooklyn accent, plays her as a bit of both, and so the character never quite gels. At the very least, it’s a stretch to believe that this woman fell for this man because of the magic of his writing — and if we can’t believe that, the very basis of the romance collapses.
The truth is that Shadowlands doesn’t become a good love story until it becomes a death story. (That Jack first owns up to his romantic feelings when he learns Joy is sick is a queasy irony the film glosses over a bit too eagerly for comfort.) Say this for Winger, though: No actress dies as beautifully as she does. You’d have to be a stone to watch the end of Shadowlands unmoved, but for most of the film, Attenborough gets by on ersatz refinement, a middling approximation of the spiritual delicacy that made The Remains of the Day a work of art.
The title of Naked is a double tease. It promises lots of sex — which the movie provides — and, more than that, a stripping down to raw reality. The movie provides that, too, though in such a grimly portentous way that it’s clear halfway into the opening credits that Leigh’s big theme is The End of Civilization. Johnny (David Thewlis), our tour guide through hell, is a scraggly 27-year-old homeless dropout who drifts through the squalid London night world like a postpunk Candide, keeping company with losers and flakes, engaging various unhappy women in bouts of feverishly nasty, hair-pulling sex (the film opens with a shot of him committing a back-alley rape), and, mostly, talking, talking, and talking some more.
Over the course of nearly 2 1/2 hours, Johnny spews out his nihilist poison, making apocalyptic wisecracks about everything he hates: television, work, boredom, relationships, life itself. ”Why are you such a bastard, Johnny?” asks the tall, morose punkette Sophie (Katrin Cartlidge). ”Monkey see, monkey do,” he replies with gleeful mockery. Yet there’s a tenderness beneath his savagery. Despairing as his view may be, it trips off his tongue with bitterly ironic elegance (”You can’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs. And mankind is just a cracked egg, and the omelette stinks”). He’s Johnny Rotten with a thesaurus.
Since Naked has been lavishly praised by virtually every critic alive, let me offer a dissenting warning: The movie sounds a lot more arresting than it is. Thewlis is certainly an impressive ranter, but his performance is ultimately monotonous. So is Naked. The reason, I think, is that Leigh, a Marxist doomsayer, views Johnny less as a human being than as a mouthpiece; even his spikiest tirades are crowned with a halo of sanctimony. There’s an element of showing off in Naked‘s relentless, screw-tightening ugliness. I’m all for movies that don’t pull punches, but by refusing to let a single ray of light contaminate his blinkered vision, Leigh ends up hectoring the audience, pounding us not with truth but with his own inflated integrity.
After the cozy sentimentality of Shadowlands and the apocalyptic pretensions of Naked, The Snapper, a tartly witty, small-scale domestic comedy written by Roddy Doyle (The Commitments) and directed by Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, Hero), hits you like a welcome gust of cold air. Sharon (Tina Kellegher), a fresh-faced Dublin lass, is going to have a snapper (i.e., a baby), the result of a meaningless drunken encounter with the middle-aged lout across the street. Her pregnancy becomes the scandal of the neighborhood, yet it’s a mock scandal: Everyone is wide-eyed with ”shock,” but the gossip, the salacious ripples, the alternating Catholic currents of concern and disdain all work to bring this squabbling community to vibrant life.
Frears, who spearheaded the mid-’80s renaissance of British filmmaking with My Beautiful Laundrette, is a ripe contradiction: an acerbic humanist. The characters in The Snapper show an ebullient optimism in the face of comically meager options. The pregnancy, for all its inconvenience, teases out a hidden layer of chivalry between Sharon and her anxious, overprotective da (Colm Meaney). Meaney, looking like a working-class Irish Norman Mailer, gives a wonderful performance — now bellowing, now sensitive, now boyish. He turns what might have been a friendly one-joke farce into a touching tribute to the heroic follies of fatherhood. In The Snapper, those two quintessentially British qualities — sweetness and cynicism — prove to be no contradiction at all. Shadowlands: B-; Naked: C+; The Snapper: B+