Suffer the Children
by Chris Dashiell
For the last fifty years or more, many filmmakers have
been choosing to reflect on the world's tragedies through the point
of view of children. I think one of the main reasons for this is that
the horrors of war and politics have become so immeasurable in our time
that we block them out and become hardened to them. But children still
see with new eyes, and the drama of their experience, with all the ways
in which adults bring their own pasts to bear in order to influence
kids, along with the strange, wider spectacle of the world at large,
is like a doorway for the artist to enter a more genuine realm of feeling
and perception than is allowed by the hidebound conventons of "grown
up" drama. But still, the artist will bring preconceptions through this
doorway as well, and thus are established conditions and habits that
can make the childhood drama as predictable a genre as any other. The
key is respect. To the degree that the filmmaker respects the actual
experience of human beings, young and old, and chooses this approach
over any schematic purpose or message that he or she may already have
in mind - to the same degree will the film move the viewer with the
force of truth.
Frears' Liam, the story of a poverty-stricken family in
Depression-era Liverpool, is neither a complete success or failure in
this regard. When Jimmy McGovern's screenplay lingers on the details
of his characters' daily lives and concerns, the film sometimes achieves
beauty and pathos. When it wants instead to drive home certain points
about the intersection of poverty and bigotry, or the repressive effects
of the Catholic Church, it tends to heavy-handedness and the use of
melodramatic plot devices instead of delicate observation. This prevents
Liam from being a great film, but fortunately the acting still
makes it worth seeing.
Liam (Anthony Borrows) is full of wide-eyed wonder, but he stammers
and can't get his words out. He is extremely impressionable - sensitive
to the fighting between his parents, and the scary doctrines of eternal
damnation being drummed into him at the parish school, where he is being
prepared for his first Holy Communion. His
father (Ian Hart) loses his job and becomes increasingly bitter. His
mother (Claire Hackett), loves and cares for her three children as best
she can, but is harried by the constant money worries. Older sister
Teresa (Megan Burns) works as a maid for a wealthy Jewish family - in
a subplot she discovers that this family's mother is having an affair.
As the father's unemployment continues, the situation grows worse, and
Liam's suffering grows more pronounced.
1930s Liverpool is nicely evoked with a muted color scheme
of browns and dark reds. Frears' direction, however, is rather commonplace.
He seems to have lost the visual energy he had in his films of the 80s.
In fact, Liam has something of the style of a BBC television
production, functional without expressing very much. But the actors
shine through, especially the reliable Hart, whose understated performance
almost redeems the contrived aspects of his character, and Hackett,
completely real and sympathetic as the struggling mom. The
diminutive Borrows, in the title role, is a valiant performer, with
great naturalness and feeling. He is also extremely cute, which I think
somewhat detracts from his character. Of course it's not Borrows' fault
that he's adorable - it's only that in dramas of this kind it is usually
better, I think, to challenge an audience to love someone who might
seem difficult to love, or even unlovable, than it is to place, in Victorian
fashion, a little angel at the center of things. In this respect, and
for other reasons, I miss the more vigorous style of Neil Jordan's The
Butcher Boy, for example, or Lynne Ramsay's more recent
film portrays a Catholic priest and a parish teacher in a most unflattering
way, employing a lot of exaggrated camera angles to accentuate the overbearing
and threatening qualities of these authority figures. The intent is
to portray a growing atmosphere of terror enveloping Liam's vulnerable
young mind, as the priest and teacher use the threat of hellfire to
indoctrinate their charges. This emphasis on the theme of hell is reminiscent
of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, except that Joyce
uses it as a springboard for his hero's eventual rebellion. Here it
is meant as an attack on punishment as religious superstition and teaching
method, and although I'm sure McGovern is not exaggerating in the details
he presents, the treatment is so deliberate in its emphasis that it
seems like special pleading instead of good fiction.
of this criticism may make it appear that I am completely negative on
Liam. Actually I found myself absorbed in the story much of the
time, and I think the connections the film makes between poverty and
political unrest are sometimes fruitful ones. It's a better movie than
most that are out there right now. Yet it seems to me that when a picture
tries to enter the world of childhood, and thereby reflect on concerns
that are urgent for all of us, we need to have a somewhat higher standard
for its success than we would for an entertainment. Insofar, then, as
Frears and McGovern have imposed a story on their characters in an attempt
to make certain points, their film isn't the best it could have been.
frightened woman living in a mansion, two children claiming they see
ghosts, the servants behaving strangely...on the surface Alejandro Amenábar's
The Others has thematic similarities to The Turn of
the Screw. As it happens, the film is lightweight in comparison
to the densely layered Henry James story, and what ideas it has are
of a different order. But there are some things about it that make it
interesting, and a few nice shivers are provided into the bargain.
(Nicole Kidman) lives in a mansion on one of the Channel islands in
1945. She has had to deal with the recent occupation by the Germans,
followed by her husband going off to war. Strictly religious, she confines
her young daughter and son (Alakina Mann and James Bentley) with suffocating
protections and rituals, and meets her daughter's claims of having seen
and talked to spirits with anger and punishment. Into this strange hermetic
world arrive three new servants, led by a housekeeper (Fionulla Flanagan)
of imposing mien. They seem to be holding secrets, and act in a conspiratorial
manner, while Grace gradually becomes convinced that there are indeed
ghostly presences haunting the house.
As a horror film, The Others is refreshing in its
lack of gore or blatant shock effect. Most everything is done by suggestion
- sounds, shadows, disturbing hints - and the result is an atmosphere
of spookiness rather than pure fright. There are a few startling moments,
but overall it's like a pleasantly creepy bedtime story that offers
a chill, but doesn't upset one's dreams.
and of itself, the plot isn't much more inventive than average. The
Others is plot-driven to a great degree, and that puts it in the
realm of light entertainment more often than not. There's nothing wrong
with that, of course. Two aspects of this film, however, shine through
the mechanics of the ghost story structure, bringing it up a notch.
One of them is the children. Amenábar doesn't condescend to the
young people - the siblings' fears and petty fighting provide some of
the movie's more interesting moments, and Makina and Bentley are amazingly
good. I've known kids just like these. Amenabar brings out the real
characters of these children instead of treating them only as objects
of adult fear and concern.
other aspect is Nicole Kidman in the lead role. She manages to sustain
an intense, mounting hysteria that, combined with a sense of icy repression,
infects the audience with her fear and creates a complex psychological
portrait as well. Grace's strength is deceptive because it is gained
only through the most neurotic vigilance and control. Ever present,
underneath the surface, is her alarm and vulnerability. This is Kidman's
best work in years, I think. Unfortunately the vehicle, wrapped up in
its tricky little plot, is a bit too small for her. But she can really
act when she sets her mind to it, and The Others only confirms
a belief I've already had for some time. Her former marriage to Tom
Cruise, with the big celebrity status it brought to her, has tended,
in a paradox which has become oddly familiar, to obscure her talent.
I hope she continues to make good choices like this.
keeping with the theme of children in movies, it's only fitting that
I now bring up the subject of Steven Spielberg. I dare say no recent
director has been as obsessed with childhood as he is. In my view, he
has consistently taken an inauthentic approach to the subject - idealizing
children, putting them on pedestals as sources of wisdom for adults
who have lost their connection to innocence and playfulness, separating
them into the realm of fantasy without respecting their capacity for
seriousness. At their best, these tendencies produce a film like E.T.:
the Extraterrestrial, the greatest live action Disney film, except
that it's not Disney. At their worst, they produce Hook, or the
Jurassic Park movies, and his "adult" films are often infected
with the same disease.
on a huge scale can make it difficult, I believe, for an artist to have
or maintain critical perspective. Spielberg remains the most popular
living director. In terms of monetary expectations, his latest picture
- A.I.: Artificial Intelligence - would appear to be one of his
rare failures. This fact in itself is not enough to recommend the film,
although it is tempting to think so. I'll leave it to the studio spinmeisters
to figure out why the movie didn't do as well as desired. I suppose
they think it was too dark. And unfortunately this conclusion would
probably cause Spielberg to think that he needs to be even more cloying
in the future, rather than less. In artistic terms, though, I am convinced
that it's precisely the darkness of the film that makes it compelling
in its first half, and that what sinks A.I. in the second half
is Spielberg's decision to revert to old habits and modes instead of
setting out for new territory.
now, most readers should know the bare bones of the story. A.I.
was originally a Stanley Kubrick project. Spielberg inherited it with
the expressed intention of making the film as a tribute to the late
director. The story concerns David, an artificial child, a robot, adopted
by a couple whose actual son is in a coma. The mother chooses to let
David bond with her through a pre-set mechanical procedure. This is
a permanent event for David, but then the real son comes out of his
coma, and the couple eventually abandon their robot child in favor of
their biological one. David wanders into a frightening world where robots
are hunted down by people to be used for sport, all the while searching
for the Blue Fairy that he has heard about in a story, in the hope that
she can turn him into a real boy.
I can't remember the last time a film has been this good
in its first part, only to become so abysmally bad in its second. Most
films are a mixture, with elements that work mixed with elements that
don't work throughout the picture - or if a beginning or ending is bad,
this is an anomaly compared to the majority of the work. Either that,
or a movie is a success in its overall effect, or a failure in same,
for reasons that are fairly consistent throughout the running time.
But for me, watching A.I. was at first (given my low estimation
of Spielberg) a startlingly pleasant surprise, followed by an equally
startling disappointment. Rather than scoff, therefore, at the effort
put into this picture, I feel sad about the opportunity that was lost.
drama of David's introduction into the life of the married couple, his
bonding with the mother, and his eventual ousting from the family nest,
is handled with an almost complete mastery of tone. Spielberg balances
the superficiality of the parents, the heartlessness they can't see,
with a moving sense of David as a presence that challenges them (and
us) to love. The weird sci-fi setting and mood offsets the sentimental
elements nicely. There is a scene in which David's "brother" and his
friends taunt him while they are playing at a swimming pool that, with
its mattter-of-fact awareness of cruelty as an element in the lives
of children, is poignant and totally effective.
Haley Joel Osment, who plays David, really shows his mettle
in a very difficult role that requires him to seem plastic in his physical
responses while conveying an emotional presence. The scene where he
clings in desperation to his mother (Frances O'Connor) as she abandons
him is beautiful, one of the best things Spielberg's ever done.
the wandering David is captured by humans and taken to a "Flesh Fair"
to be torn apart for entertainment. Here he meets Gigolo Joe - a marvelous
turn by Jude Law, who really brings an added spark to the picture. I
consider this long sequence to be, with only a few minor lapses, astoundingly
well written, even witty at times, and directed with admirable energy,
with a darkly humorous atmosphere that is gripping. The theme of "orga"
versus "mecha" - human ignorance, fear and hatred set off against the
essential innocence of their own creations - carries an ironic punch.
what happened? I won't give away any more details of the plot. All I
can say is that the script sets itself a challenge that it doesn't meet.
My argument, in the main, is not with the story as it develops. Spielberg's
overriding concern is with this robot boy's search to become real, and
part of that search is to somehow reunite with the mother. The concept
of the resolution could have worked. The problem, in my view, is with
the treatment. For half the film, Spielberg has allowed himself (and
us) to stare into the worst aspects of our nature, and in that vision
has been reflected the goodness of the child, whose artificiality is
at the same time his tragic fate. But instead of maintaining this gaze,
and letting his hero find humanity somehow through the darkness which
is part of the potential of being human, the film loses itself in a
barren search for an outward deus ex machina, which rejects the human
in favor of an ideal.
The method matches the lack of conviction. The pace becomes
laborious, plodding. A voice-over narrator "explains" things, whereas
we want to see and experience them. Finally, an unduly long ending sequence
condescends to us in the form of pity and an idea of transcendent understanding
which is belied by its own banal and solipsistic expression. A.I
can't find the catharsis of tragedy, maybe because its creator believes
that a happy ending means the end of suffering.
Spielberg means to say, it is not clear. I think it is not clear to
him. His own Pinocchio journey has no end in sight, so how can he resolve
it? And so he reverts to the saccharine sentimentality which has served
him in the past. It's a shame, really, but despite this disappointment
I have to at least express some admiration that he was able to go as
far as he did.
©2001 Chris Dashiell