Mirth and murder

Gillian Anderson, looking pained in Terrence Davies’ The House of Mirth (2000), a film that was roundly praised by critics when it came out—J. Hoberman listed it as one of the best of the year, Stephanie Zacharek felt it captured the essence of the Edith Wharton novel on which it’s based, etc.  I distinctly remember renting it on video at the time and failing to get past the first fifteen minutes.  But I gave it another shot this week because that was eleven years ago and I was a teenager and generally less adept at making critical evaluations of things than I am now.  After watching it, though, I’m wondering if my teenage instincts were not so far off, because I think it’s kind of a bad movie.  The actors—many of whom are quite talented (Anderson, Laura Linney)—feel like they’re fighting with the dialogue, which is arch and heavy with the kind of ambiguity that works on the page (Wharton, like her contemporary Henry James, is a novelist of rich psychological subtlety) but doesn’t necessarily translate to the screen.  Iain Softley’s roughly contemporary adaptation of James’ The Wings of the Dove (1997) was much more successful, largely because he jettisoned James’ tone-deaf dialogue, retaining the novel’s basic structure and set of complex relationships but making, like, a movie out of the thing (no small feat; the novel, while ingenious, is not exactly cinematic stuff).  Softley’s film brought James’ novel to life; Davies’ film feels leaden and strained, as if it’s going through the motions but doesn’t seem interested in really giving us a way in to the story or the characters.  It’s a stiff film in the Classics Illustrated style.

Perhaps even more problematic is Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale (2001), a somewhat infamous movie about school-kids slaughtering one another as part of a dystopian Lord of the Flies-type competition.  (Forty of them are dumped on a deserted island, armed with various kinds of weapons, and instructed to kill or be killed.)  It’s the kind of ultraviolent movie that no doubt gets blamed for real-life bloodbaths like the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings; but although the film’s violence is quite graphic in a kind of Kill Bill way (blood gleefully spurting everywhere) the film is ultimately humanistic and deeply moral: we’re meant to reflect on how terrible it is that kids could treat one another so cruelly, and there are some not-very-subtle indications that we’re meant to read the whole thing as a kind of allegory for the brutality of high school itself and of modern Japanese culture at large, and the movie ends with wistful pre-bloodbath shots of the kids over sentimental music, and so on.  Watching Battle Royale reminded me of Pauline Kael’s assessment of Michael Lehmann’s Heathers (1989)—that it was a wickedly funny dark comedy until the third act, when it started to feel guilty about how wicked and dark it was and felt like it needed to apologize for itself.    

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