"METROLAND isn't a place. It's a state of mind." This tidbit of
wisdom is imparted to Chris Lloyd (Christian Bale) by a retiree (John
Wood) as both head to their suburban homes outside of London circa
1977. Chris was a child of the suburbs who, like many, found it stifling
while growing up. He and his pal Toni (Lee Ross) spent their formative
years dreaming of a bohemian life and after schooling, each embarks
on realizing those yearnings. Toni travels around the world from Africa
to the United States while Chris settles in Paris and tries to make a go
as a photographer. He falls for the more worldly Annick (Elsa Zylberstein)
and they commence an affair. Soon, though, Chris has befriended Marion
(Emily Watson) and finds himself drawn to her. They marry, have a child
and Chris finds himself turning into his parents; working at a seemingly
unchallenging job and commuting from Metroland to London. He seems
to be at peace until Toni visits and stirs up some of those long-forgotten
METROLAND was Julian Barnes' debut novel (published in Great
Britain in 1980) and it followed Chris and Toni from their childhood to
their 30s. In adapting the book to film, screenwriter Andrew Hodges
has chosen to concentrate more on the last chapters — with extended
flashbacks to Chris' Parisian sojourn. Well-directed by Philip Saville,
this seemingly vary British movie actually addresses universal notions.
The predominant question is "How do we know whether we've made
the right choices in life?" Some may refer to it as a "mid-life crisis" but
for others it can happen earlier. At issue is knowing when to release
unrealistic dreams and when to accept responsibility for one's actions.
In short, to become a mature adult.
Hodges and Saville have crafted a story that in many ways has
parallels to biblical tales. Chris and Marion seem to be living an ideal
existence in their Edenic suburb. They have it all — the house, the car,
the baby, the garden. Into their lives slithers Toni, who Satan-like
tempts both — he offers Chris glimpses of the life he might have had,
while he also clearly fancies the attractive Marion. His visit stirs Chris'
memories of his life in Paris and those extended scenes, often intercut
with the more modern ones, allows the audience to enter into Chris'
psyche. We see he and Toni as smart-ass schoolboys, smoking and
making fun of their parents and neighbors, allowing that they wouldn't
be caught dead living in METROLAND. Chris in Paris is like an unbridled
horse, a bit wild and reckless, in the throes of experiencing life. In
Annick, he has found a tutor who encourages that freedom. With Marion,
however, Chris finds his tamer — depending on how one views the
film, either she is a manipulating and cold woman or she is the catalyst
for Chris' maturity.
While this is a small film in terms of budget, it is an ambitious
one in its approach. Fans of the novel may complain about what
was omitted but Hodges' script frames the central matters in accessible
ways. Saville directs with an almost invisible touch and he has elicited
several fine performances. As Annick, Elsa Zylberstein is sultry and sexy.
Her dark features and voluptuousness work in counterpoint to Emily
Watson's blondeness. In her Oscar-nominated roles, Watson was cast
as very emotional woman and she has had a tendency to engage in
scenery-chewing. Not that she hasn't been anything but fascinating
to watch but Bess in BREAKING THE WAVES and Jacqueline du Pré
in HILARY AND JACKIE were larger-than-life characters that were
similar in their psychological make-up. In METROLAND, Watson
delivered a very nuanced, quiet, but highly effective performance.
She is enigmatic; one minute she is passionate, the next cold and
scheming. Or is she? The beauty of her portrayal is that Watson
has played the character in a manner that leaves Marion's
motivations open to interpretation. It is a challenging part which
Watson mines for all its worth. Personally, I was a bit disappointed
by Lee Ross' Toni. To me the character seemed half-formed. For all
his talk, he is clearly envious of Chris and the life he has carved
but Toni is also enough of a bastard that he wants to take that
away from his friend. On some level, Toni and Marion engage in
a battle for Chris' soul but because Watson is such a strong
presence, Ross' Toni seems mismatched from the outset.
At the heart of the film, though, is Chris and I cannot think of
another actor who could possibly act this role. Christian Bale has
literally grown up on screen. As a teenager, he anchored Steven
Spielberg's underrated EMPIRE OF THE SUN and delivered arguably
one of the best performances by a child actor in cinema history. From
this auspicious beginning, he has consistently offered finely wrought
portrayals. Adept at everything from Shakespeare to romantic period
roles to modern-day figures, Bale almost never strikes a false note
in his work. Even when cast in material that is of questionable
pedigree, he has shone brightly. In METROLAND, he brilliantly
captures the three phases of the character of Chris and manages
through judicious use of hair and makeup as well as his talent
to be believable in each. One sees the teenaged Chris and the
seeds of the boy-child he is in Paris and later the man he has
become. Chris is also somewhat passive for a hero — he is the
prize to be won and playing that role can defeat a lesser actor.
But Bale possesses the charisma of a true movie star as well as
the natural gifts of a polished actor (that he has never had any
formal training is mind-boggling) — and as this is his first adult
role carrying a film, it offers glimpses of the long career he
undoubtedly will have.
I suspect that there will be some who will be unable to get
past the Britishness of METROLAND and that would be a shame.
Whatever its flaws, it provides a perfect setting for the gem-like
performances of Zylberstein, Watson and, especially, Bale.
|© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.