|Joely Richardson, Sam Bould (centre), and Jason Flemyng in Hollow Reed (1996).|
The ostensible subject of the 1996 English drama Hollow Reed is child abuse, but the writer, Paula Milne, the director, Angela Pope, and a superb cast move into deeper themes of isolation and the desperation for love. Martin Donovan plays Martyn, a gay doctor living with his lover (Ian Hart); his wife, Hannah (Joely Richardson), has custody of their son Oliver (the delicately expressively Sam Bould). When Martyn suspects that Hannah’s live-in boy friend Frank (Jason Flemyng) has been beating Ollie, the unresolved tensions close to the surface of these complicated lifestyle decisions – fear of abandonment, competition for affection, bitterness over old losses – burst through. And the boy, who’s become a magnet for these knotted adult impulses he can’t comprehend, retreats farther and farther. Pope’s handling of Ollie’s buried feelings, which he can convey only by indirection, is the most compelling aspect of the movie: it recalls the lacerating scenes with the little girl in Roger Donaldson’s classic New Zealand troubled-marriage picture Smash Palace.
On its own problem-play terms, Hollow Reed is actually very daring. When Hannah discovers that Martyn’s accusations are grounded in truth, she throws Frank out – but when he lets himself back in that night and begs her forgiveness, her loneliness melts her resistance. The film acknowledges the weight of Hannah’s mistake without losing sympathy for her, largely because Joely Richardson charts all of the character’s contradictory emotions – especially in the scene where, the morning after Frank’s return, she races after her son, on his way to school, to try, uselessly, to assure him he needn’t fear any further beatings.
And Pope and Milne do some remarkable things with Frank, who is a counterpoint to Martyn’s lover Tom, Hannah’s lawyer’s choice for the villain in the custody suit Martyn initiates. His grilling of Tom brings out Tom’s acerbic side; he forgets to focus on the custody issue when his pride as a gay man is stung. (This is Hart’s finest moment.) The barrister’s point is clear: Frank’s possibly violent nature is less dangerous to the boy than Martyn’s having sex with another man in the bedroom next door. But what we see, in the scene where Martyn drives onto Frank’s work site to check him out and especially in the late-night talk where Frank works to poison Ollie’s mind against his father’s sexual preferences, is the creepily homoerotic underlayer of this man’s homophobia. That may sound like a PC platitude, but it sure doesn’t play that way. Hollow Reed transcends the banalities of received wisdom in its story (by Neville Bolt, based on a true incident) by dramatizing it. We accept the characters’ interactions because of the sharpness of observation in the script, the direction, the performances. The movie earns our trust.
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.