CAST: Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Jeremy
Northam, Jennifer Ehle, Graham Crowden, Trevor Eve, Lena Headey,
Tom Hollander, Anna Massey, Toby Stephens
DIRECTOR: Neil LaBute
There's a vicious rumor going around that Neil LaBute, the sharp,
unnerving auteur of "In the Company of Men," "Your Friends & Neighbors"
and "Nurse Betty," actually directed this drama about two contemporary
scholars who fall in love while researching a secret affair between
a pair of Victorian poets. If the rumor is true, LaBute has no one
but himself to blame (unless it's screenwriters David Henry Hwang
and Laura Jones, who collaborated with him on the adaptation of
A.S. Byatt's novel) for this anemic, tedious wheeze.
But shouldn't it have something going for it, considering that it
stars Oscar-winning Gwyneth Paltrow and LaBute staple Aaron Eckhart
as the feminist, veddy British Maud Bailey and the macho, bluntly
American Roland Michell--and that it co-stars the distinguished
Jennifer Ehle and Jeremy Northam as Christabel LaMotte and Randolph
Henry Ash, a mousy lesbian poet and a respectably married literary
lion who engage in a bit of not-so-Victorian sex?
It should indeed have something going for it. But it doesn't. There
is absolutely nothing of substance to grab onto here. Maud and Roland's
biggest problem, as it turns out, has nothing at all to do with
their conflicting methods of arriving at the truth about Christabel
and Randolph. The real, thoroughly modern problem faced by these
dismally neurotic soulmates is that they are afraid to commit. They've
both been burned, you see, and they're desperately afraid of being
burned again. The biggest problem for actors Paltrow and Eckhart,
on the other hand, is that they have zero chemistry. Didn't anyone
bother to introduce them? It's they who seem to come from separate
centuries, if not planets.
As for Ehle, she appears to be working overtime on her Meryl Streep
imitation, but without much success. Northam, at least, manages
not to make us forget how splendid he was in "Gosford Park," Lena
Headey plays the role of Christabel's loopy long-time sweetheart
for considerably more than it's worth, and Toby Stephens is suitably
silly as a scoundrel who schemes to snatch the fruit of Maud and
Roland's literary sleuthing out from under them. You won't care
whether he succeeds on his sneaky mission; you'll only care about
not being trampled in the stampede to the exit.
I plan to dump this rubbish from my mind and patiently wait for
"The Shape of Things" to come. That's LaBute's film version of his
own lacerating, intellectually substantial play, and it's set solely
in the century he knows best.