Film

INAPPROPRIATE PASSIONS

Love and desire come as a surprise in a Brit comedy and a Yank tragedy

BRIAN D. JOHNSON November 10 2003
Film

INAPPROPRIATE PASSIONS

Love and desire come as a surprise in a Brit comedy and a Yank tragedy

BRIAN D. JOHNSON November 10 2003

INAPPROPRIATE PASSIONS

Film

Love and desire come as a surprise in a Brit comedy and a Yank tragedy

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

THERE’S SOMETHING delightful, and oddly appropriate, about the notion of Hugh Grant as the British prime minister—even if he breaks the ice at his first cabinet meeting by asking, “Who do you have to screw around here to get a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit?” Then in walks his assistant (Martine McCutcheon) with tea and bickie. She’s a sparky brunette who’s been ditched by her boyfriend because he feared she was getting fat. And a premise is born, as we re-imagine Monica Lewinsky as an English good girl and her boss as a bachelor and a perfect gentleman. That’s just one of eight romances contained in Love Actually, a yuletide hamper of bottomless cheer from writer Richard Curtis, part of the Brit hit machine that gave us Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’s Diary. This marks his directing debut, and an ambitious one it is.

Released for American Thanksgiving— which begins Hollywood’s Christmas onslaught—Love Actually is a romantic comedy on a Santa-sized mission. As chapter titles count down the weeks to Dec. 25, Curtis loads up on storylines, each a tale of inappropriate passion. A writer (Colin Firth) falls for a Portuguese housekeeper in the South of France; an office vixen tempts a comfortably married man (Alan Rickman) to betray his wife (Emma Thompson); a widower (Liam Neeson) coaches his 11-yearold stepson through his first crush; a groom’s best man pines after the bride (Keira Knightley); an office worker (Laura Linney) is secretly in love with a colleague; a perversely cynical ex-junkie rock star (Bill Nighy) rerecords an old hit as a Christmas tune while finding a soft spot for his manager; and a young man dying to get laid (Kris Marshall) flies to Wisconsin, convinced that American women can’t resist a British accent.

As the narrative gets compounded, like The Twelve Days of Christmas, we wonder how Curtis can possibly deliver his sleighful of subplots on time. A couple of them do fizzle. And I found myself bristling at the goodwill of a script larded with fat jokes. But resistance was futile. This plum pudding of a romantic comedy is rich with delicious moments. It includes hilarious cameos, from Billy Bob Thornton as a libidinous U.S. president to Rowan Atkinson as a fastidious store clerk. Thompson and Rickman, both impeccable, are off in their own little movie, a heartbreaking tale of infidelity. As the faded rocker cashing in on Christmas, Nighy nails the film’s cagey balance between cynicism and sentiment. And in a performance made up of dashing entrances and exits, Grant restores honour to high-office romance.

The Lewinsky spectre takes a different form in The Human Stain, a drama of doomed romance adapted from the 2000 novel by Philip Roth. The story takes place in 1998, during the Clinton sex scandal. As narrator Nathan Zuckerman (Gary Sinise) explains, it “was the summer of sanctimonyafter the fall of Communism and before terrorism, there was a brief interlude when the nation was preoccupied with cocksucking.” Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) is an eminent professor who’s forced to resign after his innocent use of the word “spooks” is twisted into a racial slur. In retirement, Silk becomes embroiled in a Viagra-stoked affair with Faunia (Nicole Kidman), a blue-collar vamp with a tragic past and a dangerous exhusband (Ed Harris).

It’s no surprise that this affair will end badly—the lovers’ fatal demise is shown in the opening credits. And in the firm grip of director Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart), this tale’s morality could not be clearer. Silk and Faunia are starcrossed lovers in severe denial, two dropouts from the American Dream. Silk passes himself off as a Jew, but flashbacks to his years as a college student (played by Wentworth Miller), reveal another ethnicity altogether. It’s hard to buy Hopkins and Kidman in these roles. They both act up a storm, but you feel you’re watching bravura performances, not convincing characters. And even if you’re comfortable with the idea of sex between a septuagenarian and a woman in her 30s, it’s kind of creepy watching Nicole and Sir Tony get it on. li1]