Native Gardens – Theatre Review: Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Theater Center, Phoenix

When young couple Pablo (Keith Contreras) and his very pregnant wife Tania (Arlene Chico-Lugo) move to Washington, D.C., they buy a brownstone fixer-upper in a historic neighborhood. It’s not just the house that needs fixing, it’s also the backyard, the one with the dilapidated chain link fencing, the weeds, the huge oak tree and its falling leaves, and the lone garden gnome with its arm reaching forward as if in desperate need to pull itself out of its unkempt surroundings and into something a little more worthy of its presence. But that’s not the problem.

The problem is the neighbors, the ones with the pristine, cultivated yard that somehow looks a little wider than Pablo’s and Tania’s; the one with its manicured, richly green lawn, and the highly-organized beds of flowers with their carefully arranged array of colors, so neat, elegant, and refined they hardly look real.

When retirees and long-term homeowners Frank (Bill Geisslinger) and Virginia (Robynn Rodriguez) first meet the folks next door, everything’s cordial. A gift of a bottle of fine wine, dark chocolates, and friendly greetings go a long way. A new friendship is established, particularly when Pablo tells them he’ll be removing the eyesore of a chain-link divider in favor of a new wooden fence. That’s exactly what Frank and Virginia want. “Good fences make good neighbors,” Virginia states. But things soon sour.

When Pablo arrives home one day with the legal documents and the plan of the land he’s just purchased, he makes a sudden discovery, one that explains why next door’s yard looks that little bit wider than his. “Your flower beds are actually on our land,” Pablo tells the good neighbors with some reluctance. And they are, by almost two feet. If you count the square footage taken up by Frank’s potentially prize-winning flowers, the cash value runs into several thousand. And Pablo and Tania, not unreasonably, want their land back. But as far as Frank and Virginia are concerned, they’re not budging. From their perspective, what’s about to happen is not so much The War of the Roses but a principled Battle with the Botanical Xenophobics.

In director Jane Jones’ new play Native Gardens, now playing at Herberger Theater Center until October 21, themes of class, privilege, race, and even compromise are highlighted by means of some very funny comedy. As relationships on either side of the chain link go downhill, the humor rises. At first, it’s gentle. When Tania tells Frank of her plans for her yard, she talks of cultivating a natural environment, one without a need for pesticides and sprays; one that actually helps the planet breathe. “You’re going to plant weeds on purpose?” Frank asks. But once the problem with the overlapping land and the oncoming fence develops, the comedy escalates and the insults fly, particularly when Frank and Virginia invoke squatter’s rights. “They’re Democrats!” Virginia declares to her husband as if that clearly explains everything.

While playwright Karen Zacarías’ script hints at deeper messages – Frank and Virginia are rich, white, and privileged, while Pablo is a Chilean immigrant, and Tania is of Mexican heritage, though her family has lived in New Mexico long before the state became a state (no one crossed a border; the border crossed them) – the overall feeling is eventually one of comical lightness rather than a true examination of cultural clashes, bordering on outrageous TV sit-com. In other words, those who enjoy searching for meanings when they’re not always there may find some to discuss, though they’ll have to dig deep. But occasionally a more obvious present-day political gag rears its head. When during a heated row, Tania angrily declares to Frank and Virginia, “I’ll build a fence to keep you out,” Pablo adds, “And you’re gonna pay for it!” And in terms of race, when Pablo asks of his wife, “Do you think we’ll be out of touch when we’re their age?” “No,” responds Tania, explaining,“Because we’re not white.”

However, the overall problem with the play is not so much the danger of it evolving into something ludicrously silly, which it almost does, it’s the sides you take. As the arguments grow and the insults from both parties fly, we’re supposed to be looking at the big picture and seeing that in many ways all are at fault and the only way to solve the problem is through compromise. Yet, it’s clear, Frank and Virginia have made a mistake; both the law and what is right is on Pablo and Tania’s side.

The war of words only escalates because of how the retirees react, something made even worse when Virginia admits, “Legally they own our land.” They know they’re in the wrong. And they probably always knew it but ignored what they never wanted to acknowledge in the first place. In fact, the more central you sit in the theatre, even before the play begins you can see from Carey Wong’s excellent scenic design of the two yards and the space between the buildings that the well-cultivated garden has taken up more space than it should. With that in mind, it’s difficult to see anything from the point of view of the white neighbors no matter how Pablo and Tania behave.

The idea of compromise is always the most civilized way to go, and the four will eventually come to an agreement by way of something audiences may have an inkling is going to happen long before it actually does. And while that conclusion is perhaps, like Frank’s garden, a little too neat and tidy, Arizona Theatre Company‘s presentation of Native Gardens remains a hugely entertaining evening, with four good performances from its principal leads, backed by ATC’s always high production values.

Native Gardens continues at Herberger Theater Center in Phoneix until October 21

Pictures Courtesy of Tim Fuller

Posted in Theatre

Tea with the Dames – Film Review

Titled Nothing Like A Dame on its initial release for English audiences, the new highly entertaining documentary from director Roger Michell has finally crossed the Atlantic, but with a new and more literal moniker. Stateside cinemas and those who can stream it for the home will see it as Tea with the Dames, for that’s exactly what it is.

Four dames of the English stage, screen, television, and radio regularly gather together to drink tea and to talk. It was Dame Joan Plowright’s idea that on one of those occasions, cameras should be invited to record the conversation. It took time to arrange, but on one somewhat cloudy afternoon that would eventually give way to rain, in 2017 it finally happened.

The location is Plowright’s country home, the one she shared for years with her late husband, Sir Laurence Olivier. Until the drizzle finally begins and everyone, cast and crew, moves inside, seated around the white garden table surrounded by the well-groomed trees and bushes is Plowright and her three close friends, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Eileen Atkins, and Dame Maggie Smith. And once tea is served, the conversation begins.

The energetic gab-fest runs the gamut of subjects, from personal anecdotes of the theatre, incidents with directors on the stage, concerns, fears, memories (some cloudier than others), what it was like to work with their late husbands, what they think of reviews, and how it feels to be awarded Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) for services to drama. “It doesn’t make any difference,” says Dench. “You can still swear.”

While it’s true that America will be more familiar with Maggie Smith and Judi Dench, all four ladies deserve to be equally revered. PBS viewers may recall Aitkins as Aunt Ruth in the TV comedy/drama Doc Martin, while moviegoers may recall Plowright as the hilarious grandmother Nadja in the 1990 black comedy from Lawrence Kasdan, I Love You To Death, and as the crusty Mrs. Fisher in the delightful Enchanted April. But while all four ladies have enjoyed success in TV and on the screen, it’s their work in the theatre that dominates memories and conversation, and with good cause.

Punctuated from time to time with archival clips of performances culled from stage, film, and TV, the conversation begins with reminiscences of earlier times. As a minor, after dancing three times a week at working men’s clubs, finally, at the age of ten, Atkins performed in her first play. “I told my mum I didn’t want to dance,” she explains. “I want to do this other thing.” Maggie Smith recalls how she based a lot of her earlier line deliveries from hours of watching famous comic actor Kenneth Williams from the Carry On film series. “I pinched from him all the time,” she admits.

While the conversation flows quickly from subject to subject, as casual conversations among close friends do, occasionally you’ll hear the off-screen voice of director Michell suggesting subjects, such as do the ladies still suffer from stage fright. “On the way to the theatre,” explains Atkins, “I always ask myself, would you like to be run over now?”

For Maggie Smith, fear came in the shape of Laurence Olivier once he became director of London’s National Theatre. “I was more nervous of your husband than the critics,” she tells Plowright. “Everyone was. We were terrified.” When performing as Desdemona to Olivier’s Othello, Olivier slapped Smith across the face with such ferocity, it practically knocked her out. “It’s the only time I saw stars at the National Theatre,” she laughs.

After seeing a priceless clip of a young Judi Dench as Sally Bowles in the original London cast of Cabaret, there follows a whole series of sixties TV clips from all four ladies, backed by The Rolling Stones’ Not Fade Away, culminating once again with a shot of a youthful Dench as a juvenile delinquent spitting in the face of police officer Brian Blessed in TV’s cop drama Z-Cars. This flows into a sequence of news clips showing an anti-Vietnam march in Trafalgar Square, lead by fellow performer and social activist, Vanessa Redgrave. The ladies remember the day. “Vanessa was arrested,” recalls Dench, “Then remembered she had a matinee.”

The subject of Maggie Smith’s success in TV’s Downton Abbey inevitably arises, but when asked a question about the series, Smith admits she doesn’t really know much. “I’ve never seen it,” she confesses, adding that the studio even gave her a box set of the complete series. “I suppose one day I’ll have to watch the wretched thing.

As a film documentary, no new ground is broken. The whole affair is a straightforward recording, smartly edited, of a day’s long conversation among friends, talking shop. There’s a brief moment of archival footage showing Plowright and Lord Olivier walking the grounds of their country garden together which then cuts to present-day with Plowright covering the same steps but this time arm in arm with her caregiver. In 2014, she announced her retirement from her career due to poor eyesight. Plus her hearing is declining. “One of my hearing aids has just gone,” she suddenly announces. “What are we talking about?”

If there’s a drawback it’s that the conversation doesn’t last longer. Running for a scant 83 minutes, the documentary ends all too quickly. When the off-screen voice of director Michell asks what advice would they give to their younger selves, they conclude, “When in doubt, don’t.” The film ends with a series of clips showing the array of awards, the Golden Globes, the Tonys, the Emmys, the Oscars and the BAFTAs that each of the four dames have won, set against another Rolling Stones recording, Honky Tonk Women.

It’s not hard to believe that on those days when the cameras are absent, the conversation among the four friends may be considerably more personal and private, leading us to realize that because of the presence of a director and a whole crew off-camera, what we’re watching is in itself a form of performance. But nevertheless, while nothing of any controversial nature is covered with no juicy behind-the-scenes gossip taking place, Tea with the Dames remains an enlightening way of spending afternoon tea, listening to four thoroughly engaging ladies talking of what they know. And when, after a lengthy pause, Maggie Smith suddenly looks up and declares, “I have nothing left to say,” you know it’s time to go.

MPAA: NR      Length: 83 Minutes

 

Posted in Film

The Old Man & the Gun – Film Review

Forrest Tucker was a real-life career criminal who enjoyed what he did. He was an escape artist. He escaped from prison 18 times successfully and 12 times unsuccessfully. That’s how the man himself described things. He favored bank robberies, usually small banks in small towns, and is thought to have amassed more than four million dollars during his chosen career. Yet it wasn’t so much the money Tucker was going for, it was the thrill of getting away with something.

His first escape was in 1936 at the age of fifteen. He was arrested for car theft. However, his most famous escape was later in ‘79. In full view of the San Quentin prison guards, Tucker and two others built a kayak and paddled away. He died while incarcerated in 2004.

With no relation to the late actor of the same name, it’s probable we would never have heard of Forrest Tucker had it not been for the article The Old Man & the Gun published in The New Yorker in 2003, written by journalist David Grann. David Lowery, who directed Robert Redford in the 2016 remake of Disney’s Pete’s Dragon, adapted Grann’s article, then once his 2017 release A Ghost Story was completed, commenced directorial duties for the story of Tucker’s later years, once again working with Redford. The film begins with the title, This Story, Also, Is Mostly True.

Shot widescreen with an attractive, intentionally grainy look of the late seventies by cinematographer Joe Anderson, Redford’s elderly Tucker casually robs a bank, calmly walks away, then drives. With cops still in pursuit, their sirens wailing, Tucker notices a damsel in distress at the side of the road along the interstate. Never in a rush, he slowly pulls over, allowing the speeding cops to pass by – though in plain sight, they miss him completely – while he helps a lady named Jewel (Sissy Spacek) try to start her stalled pick-up. “Do you know anything about engines?” she asks, somewhat amused by his obvious lack of automobile knowledge. “Not really,” he replies. And from there it’s friendship at first sight.

The thing about Tucker and his bank robbing habits is that he does it with style. He strolls in, politely explains to either the teller or the bank manager that he has a gun, then asks that they fill his bag with money. There’s no threat, no violence, and no bullets are fired; it’s a simple case of walking in with an empty bag and walking out with a ton of cash. “He was a sort of gentleman,” a manager tells the police after reporting the robbery. And when a teller is asked if there was anything particular she could tell the detectives about the old man who wandered in with a gun, she replies, “He seemed… happy.”

Danny Glover and Tom Waits co-star as Tucker’s friends who often accompany him on a job, acting as lookouts and helping hands should Tucker require an extra pair. Plus there’s Casey Affleck as soft-spoken Detective John Hunt who makes it his duty to find and arrest Tucker, though the closer he gets to the man, the less he wants to catch him. It’s not that he intends to let the robber continue stealing, it’s more a case of getting to like the guy. There’s a level of admiration Affleck’s detective has for Tucker. Though the best and certainly the most moving scene from a supporting player is when Elisabeth Moss, more familiar for her role in the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale, is interviewed by the police. She’s the daughter Tucker probably doesn’t even know exists.

Like Tucker’s genial character, there’s an affable likability to the film. One of the immense pleasures of this leisurely paced telling is watching Redford and Spacek, two major Hollywood stars, working together. While enjoying coffee, Tucker tells Jewel what it is he does. At first, he lies, telling her he’s in sales, then after a moment’s thought, decides to be open. He literally spells his occupation out on a piece of paper and slides it across the table for her to pick up and read. “I don’t believe a word you say,” she tells him. “I don’t blame you,” he replies.

In truth, had The Old Man & The Gun not starred such a famous movie legend as its lead, it’s possible that director Lowery’s laid-back style would have underwhelmed. But while it’s probable that most young audiences won’t know either Redford or Spacek, or their previous marquee value, the audience for whom the film is aimed should be delighted. Consider this. If the Sundance Kid had survived the attack of the Bolivian army, then later escaped back to America to live into his eighties, he might easily have become Forrest Tucker.

MPAA rating:  PG-13      Length: 96 Minutes

 

Posted in Film

Waitress – Theatre Review: National Touring production, ASU Gammage, Tempe

When expert pie-maker and waitress Jenna (an outstanding Christine Dwyer with a dynamic voice) either concocts or fantasizes the recipe for a new pie, the lights change and an almost other-worldly voice sings the pie’s first ingredient: “Sugar.” And depending on her mood, the waitress gives each pie an individual name, such as “My Eggs Have Trapped Me Pie,” or “My Husband’s a Jerk Chicken Pot Pie.

It’s never mentioned exactly where, but somewhere in the deep south, just off a long, lonely looking highway, sits Joe’s Pie Diner. It’s where Jenna works along with two other waitresses, the sassy Becky (on opening night, swing, Tatiana Lofton) and the bespectacled, ditsy Dawn (a hugely likable Lenne Klingaman). Once Jenna’s thoughts for a new recipe are interrupted by the diner’s boss, the gruff Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin), it’s back to work, but on this particular day, Jenna remains distracted, plus there’s that early morning sickness. Though she doesn’t want to know, both Becky and Dawn insist Jenna takes a home pregnancy test, just in case. It’s positive.

Jenna blames it on the red dress she was wearing that night, the sparkly one. After a night with her abusive and insensitive husband, Earl (Nick Bailey) the waitress is now saddled with an unwanted pregnancy, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time, though in truth, with her marriage, any time is the worse time. How does she handle the news? By concocting the recipe for a new pie. “I’m calling it, I Don’t Want Earl’s Baby Pie,” she declares.

Based on the 2007 film of the same name by the late writer and actor Adrienne Shelly, who also played Dawn in the movie, director Diana Paulus’ Waitress the musical, now playing at ASU Gammage until October 7, follows all the same plot points as the screenplay but changes the overall tone. There’s drama when the scenes move to Jenna’s home-life, where each night, the perpetually angry and virtually unemployable Earl forces his hard-working wife to hand over the daily tips, but the scenes at the diner up the comedy level, often to the extreme.

There’s a lot that’s funny, but there’s a lot that’s extremely broad, the kind of comedy variety hall comedians of a bygone era once employed. At a time when there were no microphones or amplification to sell a joke, performers would have to exaggerate their physical comedy in order to get the laughs, unlike today where a comedian can simply hold the mic, stand, and talk. In Waitress, it’s the combination of drama with an overall feeling of sadness at Jenna’s home followed by the unexpected broad gestures of the comedy at the diner that makes things often feel silly and unbalanced.

The broadest of all is Dawn’s blind-date boyfriend, Ogie (Jeremy Morse), a caricature of a man whose supply of caffeine clearly never quits. Ogie has a very different idea of how the first date with Dawn went; he feels he’s met his soul mate, she never wants to see him again. His high energy, pushing-it-to-the-limit number, Never Ever Getting Rid of Me, is played for slapstick laughs, ending with the need for him to calm down and pull out an inhaler. It may be over the top – way over the top – but from the lengthy, riotous applause Morse received on his exit, it also works for audiences, and both the song and the character are undeniably the crowd-pleasing favorites of the show.

Also intentionally funnier than conceived in the film is Jenna’s OB/GYN, Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart), the medical man with whom Jenna ends up having an affair. Seduced by the taste of one of her pies, the good doctor uses all of his nervous energy and the quirky moves of a mime artist to get her attention on a more personal level. After an impulsive kiss on Jenna’s part, both parties feel the urge to step away from the frustration of their home lives to be with each other, secretly stealing every private moment they can to have sex – and creatively eat pie – in the doctor’s office. While Ogie’s song may be the crowd favorite, it’s the humorous duet It Only Takes a Taste performed by Jenna and the doctor while seated on a bench waiting for a bus that steals the show. With clever lyrics and its conversational style, it’s the most theatrically satisfying number in the production.

As with the film’s conclusion, while the story’s ending wraps things up in an unlikely and convenient manner, writer Jessie Nelson’s new book for the live version is consistently witty giving ample chances for the impertinent Becky and Dr. Pomatter’s assistant, Nurse Norma (Fheaume Crenshaw) to volley sarcasm at every opportunity. When Becky asks her fellow waitresses, “Is my left boob hanging down? I’m looking like something Picasso would have made,” it may have nothing to do with anything, but it’s a funny sounding line. And for some reason, recognizable name-dropping of products always make an ordinary comment sound more amusing than it really is. When husband Earl tells Jenna why his boss complained that Earl was late for work yet again, he states, “Don’t blame the line at Taco Bell on me.”

Scenes zip effectively from one set to another with a speed that can leave you breathless. And while this current national touring production has cast all characters well, the one star you never see becomes the real stand out. Singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles may not be on stage but her presence is felt throughout. Her pop/rock score with its upbeat, catchy hooks, all presented with a theatrical panache, elevates the show to a far more entertaining level than the film ever achieved. Through song, she’s truly captured the spirit of the frustrations of working people seemingly stuck in dead-end jobs and how it feels to be there, including the fantasies of what they would like to do should they ever escape. And enjoy the singer’s unique recorded message at the beginning of the show. Using her original song Cassiopeia, Bareilles has rewritten the lyrics to remind the audience to turn off their cell phones. You’ll be applauding before the show has even begun.

The National Touring production of Waitress continues at ASU Gammage until October 7

Pictures courtesy of Joan Markus

Posted in Theatre

Sacred Journeys – Special Report: Film Review

Journey poster

Ask any visitor to Sedona and they’ll tell you; among the many breathtaking sights to enjoy, the most spectacular of all is the clarity of a cloudless, night sky. It’s where the inky blackness above looks to be literally sprayed with twinkling stars. Knowing that the nearest star is a few million light years away and it takes almost as long for that image to reach our sight, when we look above, what we’re actually seeing is the past while we remain standing in the present.

With that in mind, the opening shot of an Arizona night sky that begins the hugely likable short film from director Tracy Boyd, Sacred Journeys, underlines that same theme; when the principal characters meet, they are faced with their past and forced to deal with it in the present.

Journey 1

Jeep tour driver Marco (Glenn Scarpelli) is a slob. He sports perpetual slurp stains down the front of his tee-shirt; he uses the socks he’s wearing as emergency heating pads when taking something out of the oven; and in order to move around in his apartment, he has to navigate his way past mounting boxes of junk and plastic bags of trash that create their own in-house pathways. “I’m a mess,” he admits to his suffering tour business manager, Tom (Stephen Wallem) who wants to know if it was true that Marco stopped the tour and made everybody wait while he bought a burger for lunch.  It was true.

Tiff (Mackenzie Phillips) is a single mom to her 13-year-old son, Luke (Matthew Kosto). When we first meet them they’re just pulling in to Sedona for a brief visit. The trip is mostly for Luke’s benefit, though the real reason isn’t revealed until later in the story. “It’s to nurture and relax you,” Tiff reminds her son. As with most visitors to the mountainous area, one of the first things they do is take a jeep tour, and that’s when tourist Tiff recognizes tourist guide Marco, and by seeing each other, both are suddenly faced with a past they never knew they would have to face again.

Journey logoWhat’re you doing here?” asks Marco in a manner suggesting that the last person he would ever expect to meet after all these years was Tiff. While keeping as much of their conversation away from the ears of the boy as possible, Tiff and Marco quickly catch up with their individual stories so far. After a relationship they once shared, Marco partied too much, blew his inheritance, then moved back to Sedona to drive a jeep for sightseeing. Tiff had a child, admitted to herself that she was gay, and embraced it. “You’re gay?” asks a bemused Marco, then adds as if it all suddenly makes sense, “You always did like herbal tea and NPR.”

Running at a scant forty-seven minutes, Sacred Journeys never has a chance to wear out its welcome. In fact, the overall feel to the film is that by getting to know these likable characters as quickly as we do, once everything concludes, secrets are revealed and new beginnings are set in place, you may find yourself wishing that things lasted even longer; spending a few extra minutes with everyone would be perfectly fine.

Journey 2

Much of the fun for locals will be recognizing Sedona landmarks such as the Goldenstein Gallery, and the Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts village. Plus there are those spectacular opening, panoramic shots of the night sky, then the sun rising over the Sedona red rock mountains. Even though these widescreen, introductory moments last just a few seconds, cinematographer Radan Popovic has created an opening worthy of any big screen, large scale epic – the larger the screen the better – proving one invaluable point to any other potential filmmaker considering Sedona as a location: In this part of the state, no matter where you point that lens, there’s no such thing as a bad shot.

All four leading cast members, Scarpelli, Phillips, Wallem, and Kosto, nicely establish their characters as people we would like to know if we were ever to meet them, and they do it in a short time, but it’s Mackenzie Phillips who shines. Seeing her again, if only for this brief period, is a reminder of how natural a performer she is and how much we never realized we missed her.

Journey cast

Length: 47 Minutes

Sacred Journeys is now available for download on Amazon. CLICK HERE for a direct link.

 

 

Posted in Film

The Children Act – Film Review

As the title suggests, The Children Act is a bill introduced in 1989 to reform British law relating to minors. Its intent is to ensure that all children are safeguarded and that their welfare should be the overriding concern of the courts, while taking into account the child’s wishes, including the harm a child may have suffered or is likely to suffer.

It’s not altogether necessary for audiences to know the legalities stated within the bill, but in order to understand the conflicts fictional High Court Judge Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson) has to face in the new Richard Eyre directed drama The Children Act, a general awareness helps. At the very least, it should give insight into the decisions she has to regularly make, and why.

Based on the novel of the same name and adapted to the screen by its author, Ian McEwan, when the film begins, Fiona is having to rule on the difficult case of conjoined ‘Siamese’ twins. If she rules in favor of the hospital that insists on operating, one child will live, the other will die. On moral grounds, the parents are refusing an operation. “The logic of the evil is clear,” Fiona begins, and proceeds to make her ruling, concluding with, “The court is a court of law, not morals.” An operation will proceed.

But before the judge has time to fully breathe or to take in how her decision was reported in the press – “I gave instructions to slaughter a baby,” she dryly states while glancing over the emotional headlines that sell Britain’s tabloids – she is immediately faced with a new and equally difficult case. A 17-year-old boy, Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead) has leukemia. The doctors want a blood transfusion. But the boy’s parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses. “The soul, the life is in the blood,” they have heard preached in their church. “It’s God’s and it belongs to him.”

In stark detail, Professor Rodney Carter (Nicholas Jones) explains what will happen to the boy if he’s left unattended by the doctors. “One sure thing is that it’ll be a horrifying death,” the professor tells the court, adding once the judge is informed that it’s also the boy’s wish he be left untreated, “His views are his parent’s views.” But the boy’s parents cannot be swayed. “God’s word has to be obeyed,” the father (Ben Chaplin) insists.

The problem for the Honorable Mrs. Justice Maye is clear, even if the road to make her decision is not: should the hospitable be allowed to make a transfusion and go against the wishes of the parents based on their religion, or should the firmly held beliefs of the parents, including those of the boy himself, be adhered to?

Included in the film’s themes of parenting, the directness of the law and the authority of the courts, including its moral authority, there’s also a parallel story of love, infidelity, and the effects on a marriage when work for one of the partners becomes all consuming. Fiona’s husband, Jack (Stanley Tucci) openly declares he wants to have an affair with an associate at the college where he teaches. Fiona is forever working and has little time outside of the courts. When Jack leaves home, it’s for just a few days. His hope was that upon his return the two could talk about things and maybe save the marriage. After all, he still loves her and wants the relationship to work. But Fiona disregards him, forcing Jack to tell her, “I left this marriage two days. You left it years ago.

Despite Tucci’s touching performance – his portrayal makes Jack an immensely likable and sympathetic character – Fiona’s private life conflicts never feel as interesting as her work. There’s fascination to be had when hearing the judge’s legal arguments, including the energetic swiftness with which the behind-the-scenes decisions are made and orders are given. But the story of a failing marriage gets in the way; it can’t compete. Plus, with only one flashback relating to earlier, happier times, unlike the novel, there’s a curious absence of depth explored in the relationship to warrant any major investment or concern on our part. Even more curious is that no one ever mentions that Jack is an American living in London. Perhaps a scene of how they met would have helped. The cultural difference alone might have added insight into their earlier mutual attraction.

Far more interesting is Fiona’s developing relationship with the young Jehovah’s Witness at the center of her case. Surprisingly, the judge’s ruling as to whether the hospital can administer a blood transfusion or not is only the conclusion of the first act. It’s the results of that decision and its after-effects that make the bulk of the film. “Poor kid,” remarks one of Fiona’s colleagues. “He’s lost Jehovah and found you.”

While author McEwan’s adaptation of his own work keeps to the overall narrative of the original, there are changes, and perhaps it’s his streamlining of certain events that make the film flawed, and Fiona and Jack’s failing relationship less interesting. In the book, Fiona changes the locks to their home when Jack temporarily leaves. In fact, when he later returns, she’s actually disappointed that he’s back, as if the expectation of being alone was something suddenly appealing. That might have made conflicts on the screen more interesting than always giving her husband the cold shoulder every time he wants to have a discussion, as she does here.

Plus, with a film so intelligent and grounded in reality, it’s odd that its eventual conclusion doesn’t work as well as you might expect, or hope. But if one thing is clear, even if you don’t fully believe in the outcome of events, you believe in Emma Thompson. She makes her Judge Fiona a powerful character, running the gamut of believable emotions, always hitting her target. Despite the film’s failings, Thompson never fails to keep you anything less than glued.

MPAA Rating: R              Length: 105 Minutes

Posted in Film