Thursday, May 24, 2018

Neglected Gem: Metroland (1997)

Christian Bale and Emily Watson in Metroland. (Photo: IMDB)

Philip Savile, who died in 2016, was one of those journeymen British directors who nevertheless helmed some interesting, original projects in his career. Those included Shadey (1985), a quirky, off-kilter spy story; the poignant gay coming-of-age thriller The Fruit Machine (1988); and The Cloning of Joanna May (1989), a striking TV adaption of Fay Weldon’s inventive science-fiction novel. But perhaps his most impressive achievement was Metroland, his finely directed, acute adaptation of Julian Barnes’s novel about two best friends who come a cropper over their differing goals in life. Metroland is one of those modestly laid-out, underplayed dramas that too often go missing in action when it comes to filmgoers’ preferences. It’s also a necessary reminder that actor Christian Bale, who is the main focus of the movie, can play human-sized, recognizable protagonists rather than just over-the-top roles like his morose Batman in Christopher Nolan’s heavy-handed The Dark Knight trilogy or pull off gimmicks like losing all that weight for unduly heightened and singularly uninteresting "reality" films such as The Machinist and The Fighter.

Metroland is what the London suburb of Eastwood has been nicknamed by those who say they would never consider living there. It’s also the place where Chris (Bale) grew up and swore he’d never return to again. Now as an adult, circa 1977, he lives there with his wife Marion (Emily Watson) and their baby girl, and instead of having become a freelance photographer, as he dreamed of doing, he works in an advertising agency. Yet he doesn’t consciously question his life path or career decisions. But when his childhood buddy, Toni (Lee Ross), who's still carefree, pops up after a few years abroad, Chris is suddenly asking that age-old question: is that all there is?

It’s to the credit of both Barnes’s novel and the adaptation by Adrian Hodges (My Week with Marilyn) that the movie doesn’t come down on suburban existence, which, let’s face it, is anathema to most filmmakers and dramatists outside of Steven Spielberg. Having grown up in suburban Montreal, I can attest that it’s a not a soul-killing place in which to mature. Metroland’s generosity also extends to Chris’s married life. Here too Toni forces him to question if he wants to be faithful to his loving wife, particularly when he starts to remember his own carefree existence in Paris less than a decade earlier, and his sexual relationship with the lovely French girl Annick (Elsa Zylberstein).

As Chris, Bale runs the gamut of emotions, from frustrated to angry and finally accepting, all without ever tipping into sentimentality. Only occasionally does Chris partake of self-pity, when he’s egged on by Toni. It’s a delicate balancing act but Bale pulls it off unerringly. As Marion, Emily Watson (The Boxer) shines, as she usually does – Metroland was only her second film after her controversial 1996 debut in Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves – in a wife role that is not underwritten, as is often the case in films about marriages where the focus is more on the husband. Marion is indulgent of Chris’s foibles and insecurities and tolerates his long walks when he should be at home helping with their child, and she also knows him better than he knows himself. In Paris, where they first meet, when he muses that he would like a successful career as an unencumbered shutterbug, she retorts that he is not original enough to pull that off. She doesn’t mean it unkindly, just suggesting that he look at things as they really are. And since she eventually marries him, it’s clear that, in her eyes, he’s fine just as he is  which, by film’s end, he comes to realize himself.

Bale and Zylberstein in Metroland. (Photo: Getty)

The two other major characters, Toni and Annick, also don’t necessarily play out as expected. Lee can be an asshole, when he disparages Chris’s world or surreptitiously sets him up with a sexually free girl who wants to go to bed with him. (She makes it clear to Chris, though, that it’s her choice to do so; she’s most emphatically not a whore.) But again, it’s Marion who susses out the truth about Toni - that, despite his protestations of being happy in his existence, he actually craves the stability that Chris (unknowingly) possesses. It’s one of those cinematic revelations that hits you like a hammer  you have to believe that only Marion sees through Toni’s facade  but Savile doesn’t force it in that pivotal scene, instead laying it out there in an understated way. I don’t know Ross’s work – his major credits are mostly in British TV that didn't cross the pond – but he sells his character with consummate ease and veracity. We all know people just like him, guys who will never change or grow up. As Annick, Zylberstein could have emerged as merely a French libidinous stereotype – she’s the one who teaches virginal Chris how to be a good lover – but Hodges’ screenplay reveals her to be a sensuous but also sensitive soul, who, once she commits to Chris – she’s with someone else when he first encounters her – does so fully and, inevitably, since Chris isn’t sure what he really wants, pays an emotional toll for that choice. It’s one of Zylberstein’s most luminous performances. Kudos too to composer Mark Knopfler, whose delicate music in Metroland is on par with his better-known scores for Cal, The Princess Bride and Local Hero. The movie also perfectly encapsulates the two co-existing and quite opposite worlds of late '70s England, anarchic punk culture and straight-laced suburbia, rendering them both beautifully and convincingly on film.

I would have liked it if Metroland had allowed us to meet Chris’s father, who, according to Toni (admittedly an unreliable narrator), is who his childhood friend has become; it might have deepened his character a bit. But as too many films and TV shows illustrate, extended families often don’t exist in created worlds. And, perhaps, instead of sticking to the quick but indelible flashbacks to Chris’s Paris sojourn that are prevalent in the early parts of the movie, Metroland ought not to have packed a lengthy one into the middle of the movie. It sketches out in detail what Chris was all about and how he and Annick and, later Marion, hooked up, but it slows the movie down a little. Until then the movie's structure is flawless. It’s great, though, that the film doesn’t subtitle Chris's attempts at speaking French; it’s not about what he says but that he tries to fit into his imagined idyllic Paris, even pretending he can’t speak anglais when he first bumps into Marion, who is on vacation in France. But he is, at the day’s end, a dyed-in-the-wool Englishman who can’t fit in there no matter how hard he tries to convince himself to the contrary.

A lovely scene set in England between Chris, when he is a budding teenage photographer, and an elderly man, commuting for the last time after retiring, says much about what Metroland really is – a state of mind – and that England,in the view of the retiree, is a country that used to have more verve and ambition. It replicates perfectly how Chris sees himself as an adult and in many ways delineates the quiet pleasures of this movie, an un-showy, un-fussy film that nevertheless subtly reveals a rare emotional undercurrent. Unlike Thomas Wolfe's pronouncement, this memorable movie emphatically states that you can go home again.

– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches film at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute and just finished teaching a course at the University of Toronto's Continuing Education program entitled Sight & Sound: What Makes a Movie Great?, which will he will also teach, beginning in Feb. 2019.

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