There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Like Jean-Luc Godard’s Hail, Mary, another film that enraged Catholics who had never seen it, Priest is actually a rather congenial view of its subject. This study of uncelibate Catholic priests in working-class Liverpool will not please dogmatists, but it’s much more sympathetic than its opening scene, which shows an angry cleric using a crucifix as a battering ram.
Though not directly connected to what follows, that battering ram is symbolically apt. Made for the BBC, Antonia Bird’s film is in the bludgeoning agitprop mode of such Brit-TV leftists as Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. Making her directorial debut with a script by Jimmy McGovern, Bird doesn’t demonstrate those directors’ richness and wit, but Priest does emulate their good will. Its central characters, Father Greg (Linus Roache) and Father Matthew (Tom Wilkinson), may be mortal sinners, but they’re well-meaning.
Greg is the young, strait-laced one who arrives after the crucifix incident. He finds Matthew quite comfortable in his leftist ideology and Vatican-flouting lifestyle; the older clergyman sings at the local karaoke bar, drinks heavily, invites an Andean folk-music troupe to play in the church, sleeps with the rectory housekeeper (Cathy Tyson), and dismisses priestly celibacy as a medieval anachronism. Matthew is but the first shock for Greg, who’s not prepared for the earthy iconoclasm of his new congregation and the hostility of the local tower blocks, where “IRA” is spray-painted on the wall and doors slam in his face. Unabashedly schematic, the movie sets up Greg’s traditionalism for a series of encounters with the unruliness of real lives—including his own.
Greg faces two major, and parallel, crises. The first comes in the confessional, where an adolescent girl, Lisa, tells him that she’s being sexually abused by her father; the priest discovers that evil is anything but abstract when the father appears in the confessional soon after, grotesquely bragging that he’s only doing what all fathers desire. The second is more personal, but becomes more public: Tormented by his inability to ease Lisa’s suffering, Greg turns to Graham (Robert Carlyle), the sometime lover he met in a gay bar, only to be arrested as they kiss in a car.
The revelation of his homosexuality doesn’t endear Greg to the congregation, or to the bishop, who sends the young man to a small church-run retreat where a censorious old priest lectures him in Latin. Greg’s fall, however, does wonders for his relationship with Matthew, who adopts him as another cause—and another way to tweak the ecclesiastical authorities. “What about the bishop?” asks Greg when Matthew suggests they celebrate Mass together. “Bugger the bishop,” replies the latter with a smile. “Don’t take that literally.”
Such merrily blasphemous lines won’t convert those who find Priest an affront, but the film is more interested in its characters’ humanity than in their church’s doctrines. Though the equation of Greg’s secret sexuality and repressed conservatism is glib, the film is not contemptuous of his calling; it never suggests that everything would be fine if he would just quit the priesthood. Perhaps Bird merely liked the editing possibilities, but she even intercuts the resolution of Lisa’s trauma with Greg’s insistence that a crucifix “do something!” about the situation, as if the priest’s angry prayers have been answered.
Though Priest reportedly was outfitted with a new, sunnier ending for U.S. audiences, in some ways the film probably benefits from being yanked from its context; class-conscious entertainments are common in Britain, but rare over here. Bird has yet to learn how to leaven her leftist melodrama with subversive wit or complex characterizations, but for American viewers what she’s achieved is bracing.
As its title indicates, Jefferson in Paris concerns the sage of Monticello’s sojourn as an American minister to France. Its real subject, however, is back in Virginia, a locale the film visits only in dialogue. Fresh from turning an English aristocrat’s flirtation with Nazism to mush in The Remains of the Day, producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory, and scripter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala have decided to make hash of the issue of slavery.
Most Merchant Ivory films share a near-lustful obsession with costumes and furnishings, and Jefferson luxuriates in the baroque taste of the French nobility of the 1780s. (With those palatial hairstyles and all that makeup weighing down their heads, the guillotine must have come as something of a relief to the necks of the wealthiest French women of the period.) The film reveals its other agenda immediately, with an opening scene set in 1873 Ohio. There a man who calls himself Madison Hemings (James Earl Jones) tells a newspaper reporter that he is the son of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, one of Jefferson’s slaves.
This accusation was first made publicly by a free-lance writer hired by political opponents during Jefferson’s third campaign for the presidency, and has been resurrected periodically by various hacks since then. In their Jefferson biographies, such responsible historians as Willard Stern Randall and Merill D. Peterson reject the notion of the Hemings liaison; the father of Hemings’ children is generally believed to have been Jefferson’s nephew.
For dealers in historical fiction, however, it’s just too perfect for Jefferson, conflicted and ultimately ineffectual in his theoretical opposition to slavery, to have had one of his slaves as his longtime lover. Merchant, Ivory, and Jhabvala go even further, presenting Sally (Thandie Newton) as the earthy and pragmatic (if rather shuffling) antithesis of Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi), the witty, frivolous English-Italian socialite who attracted the widowed Jefferson’s attention when he first arrived in Paris. In choosing to sleep with the 15-year-old Hemings rather than Cosway, Merchant Ivory’s Jefferson (Nick Nolte) is choosing vital young America, with all its faults, over decadent Europe.
Since Cosway and Jefferson corresponded frequently for a time, this relationship is better documented than Jefferson’s with Hemings. Many of the incidents in the Jefferson/Cosway dalliance depicted in the film are based on their letters, although not always literally: Jefferson really did dislocate his wrist while demonstrating to Maria his ability to be passionate and spontaneous, but the future president’s dialogue between his head and his heart is transformed from a written passage into a parlor game. Even here, though, the filmmakers can’t resist embroidering history beyond recognition: Her husband Richard (Simon Callow) doesn’t object to her flirtations, Maria intimates, because he’s gay. In fact, according to Randall, Richard was an inveterate womanizer.
The performances of Nolte, Scacchi, and Newton are not as overripe as those in many Merchant Ivory productions, but the most interesting role went to Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays Jefferson’s daughter Patsy. Where Jefferson is depicted as warm, paternal, and indulgently patronizing toward his slaves, Patsy is harsher—and more human. Anointed Monticello’s first lady by her father after her mother’s death, Patsy is both jealous of Sally and revolted by the institution of slavery; under the influence of her convent school, she seeks the sanctuary of a nunnery rather than abide her father’s relationship with Sally or the family’s return to Virginia. (Jhabvala seems to have invented most of this, although it may be true that Patsy wanted to become a nun.)
Patsy’s outbursts provide about the only moments that ring true in this melodrama, which is tidy, languid, and opulent in the customary Merchant Ivory manner. Ivory has an expert eye for composition, but also for cliché; when Maria writes to Jefferson from London, the director provides the requisite shot of rain. As usual, in fact, he reduces most everything to decoration: Jefferson frolics through Paris, observing concerts, ballooning experiments, Dr. Mesmer’s séances, and bread riots. To the filmmakers, any one of these events is roughly as picturesque as any other—which is exactly why they should never have approached such prickly subjects as American slavery and the French revolution.
History also gets trashed in Rob Roy, a highland epic that’s a curious mix of old-fashioned swashbuckling and up-to-date vulgarity, but that’s hardly unprecedented. Sir Walter Scott fictionalized the tale of Scottish outlaw Robert “Rob Roy” MacGregor almost two centuries ago, and director Michael Caton-Jones’ version of the tale will probably prove no more ridiculous an account of Celtic intransigence than Mel Gibson’s upcoming Braveheart.
Set in the early 18th century, Rob Roy follows the exploits of its title character (Liam Neeson) after he’s plunged into debt to the local lord, the Marquis of Montrose (John Hurt), by the machinations of the marquis’s quietly evil agent Killearn (Brian Cox) and his flamboyantly sociopathic ally, Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth). Though the story is one of Scottish nationalism and underclass rebellion, veteran scripter Alan Sharp (Night Moves, Ulzana’s Raid) concentrates on the relationships between Rob and his wife Mary (Jessica Lange) and between Rob and Cunningham, while Caton-Jones (who showed a lighter touch with English dandies in Scandal) seems principally interested in dramatic highland vistas.
Some of this is vintage Hollywood: The film predictably ends with a winner-take-all sword fight between the powerful Rob and the cunning Cunningham, a much more dramatic ending than the historical one. (Actually, Rob was captured and then pardoned.) But Caton-Jones also indulges revisionist instincts, setting mighty battles to slow, mournful Celtic ballads and playing up the earthiness of highland existence. The first half-hour of the film, with its references to cow dung and such bawdy Britishisms as “quim” and “shagging” —wholesome when done by the so-in-love MacGregors, twisted when it’s Cunningham and a servant girl—sets out to desanitize the epic genre.
Consistency of tone is not Roy‘s strength, however. When Lange is on screen, the film becomes one of those hearty-country-women flicks she used to make, and Neeson becomes the proud but sensitive man (the Sam Shepard role). Roth’s entrances transform the proceedings into almost farcical melodrama; judging from Roth’s cartoonish turn, Cunningham’s logical antagonist would be Dudley Do-Right. Both of these performances are accomplished in their way, but they don’t exactly mesh. That might be all right if the characters never met, but the film’s centerpiece is a brutal encounter between the two.
Caton-Jones’ answer to such incongruities is to head for the hills. Scotland’s ridges and cliffs provide a stronger presence than does Neeson, as vaporous a character here as he was at the center of Schindler’s List. (One reason that the MacGregors’ sex is healthier than Cunningham’s, apparently, is that the former tend to couple on mountaintops.) The Scottish Tourist Board may end up Rob Roy‘s principal beneficiary; ultimately, the film renders every element inconsequential except the scenery.
Less cinematic than many contemporary comic books, Tank Girl is mostly attitude and art direction. Both the attitude and art direction are quite entertaining, though.
Adapted by scripter Tedi Sarafian from writer Alan Martin and artist Jamie Hewlett’s U.K. comic, Tank Girl is another tale of insurrection in a British colony. This one, though, is set in 2033 in a post-apocalypse Australia, where Tank (Lori Petty) and a handful of pals attempt to survive a world with a powerful thirst. It hasn’t rained in 11 years, and the Department of Water and Power, run by the ruthless Kesslee (Malcolm McDowell), is attempting to control all the remaining water. When Tank and Jet Girl (Naomi Watts) ally with the neo-beatnik Rippers (part man, part kangaroo; part bloodthirsty, part comic relief), the result is a frenetic amalgam of Dune and Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, glorifying female lust (sometimes homoerotic, sometimes interspecies) and adolescent back talk.
Hewlett has said he set the comic in Australia because desert is easier to draw than cities, and director Rachel Talalay and the film’s designers are equally pragmatic. Rather than invest in elaborate miniatures, they introduce scenes with comic panels, and sometimes switch to animation altogether. Such techniques are visually interesting, but they don’t do much for the film’s narrative momentum, which frequently sputters.
Though it ends with the customary showdown with the archvillain, Tank Girl is mostly a series of set pieces, and many of those are set to the music of the ’70s. Devo, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and Rachel Sweet are all prominent on the soundtrack—which also features contemporary musicmakers like Bush, Bjork, and Belly—and Tank’s love-at-first-sight meeting with the vehicle that provides her nickname (a scene that gleefully emphasizes the phallic quality of the tank barrel) is set to “Theme From Shaft.” (At one point, Tank even sports a Stiff T-shirt.)
Such moments are wittier than a lot of what appears on MTV, but the movie clearly owes its heavily stylized editing to music videos. Talalay celebrates visual clutter—the film’s scrapheap emblem is the heroine’s funky tank, complete with a portrait of Salvador Dali—and mocks narrative continuity. Tank’s clothing keeps changing from scene to scene, and Jet’s outfit metamorphoses as she turns from mouse to avenger. These touches help sustain interest even when the narrative is indifferent, but Tank Girl should have gone all the way. Instead of challenging Kesslee, Tank and her cohorts should have ripped the dystopian action genre itself.