Suffer Little Children

Suffer Little Children

There’s been a lot of of hype surrounding Todd Field’s new film, Little Children. I’m assuming a lot of that buzz is coming from people who were bowled over by the film’s astonishing trailer, but haven’t yet had a chance to see the actual movie. With all due respect to my colleague, I didn’t find much to value here.

The film is yet another Cheeveresque look at infidelity in the suburbs. Sarah (Kate Winslet) is unhappy, married to a man given to pleasuring himself while sniffing panties purchased from Internet porn stars. She has a masters degree in English lit and is bored hanging out at the park with her daughter and the other Wives of Bitchwick. Brad (Patrick Wilson) is a hot young single dad whose wife (Jennifer Connelly) is preoccupied with her own documentary about the kids of casualties of the Iraqi war. Having flunked the bar exam one too many times, he’s now a stay-at-home dad who dreams of rail-sliding on a skateboard. One day, in the park with their kids, Sarah impulsively kisses Brad. With that, the two stumble into a fantasy world of their own devising. Soon, both are seriously considering leaving their spouses.

Meanwhile, a released sex offender (Jackie Earle Hayley) has moved back to the neighbourhood. His arrival at the local pool—to be fair, this is a pretty awesome scene—sparks widespread panic. If the link between the sex offender and Sarah and Brad isn’t initially clear, it suddenly becomes so at the end of the film, when, in a masterstroke of absurdity, Field brings about a series of events that teach us all to forgive, forget and “think of the children.” It’s one thing to have a Desperate Housewives-style narrator provide intermittent guidance and wry commentary on character motivation. But it’s another to have that same voice spell out what the film is meant to teach us at the end. Ick.

I left the theatre feeling both ill and angry. If the film deserves any Oscar attention—and the film has Oscar bait written all over it—it’s for Winslet’s performance.

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Anthony Minghella’s new film, Breaking and Entering, sets out to tackle the same theme as Field does—infidelity. The difference here is that Minghella wants to acknowledge the world as it is. Set in London’s grimy but developing Kings Cross area, the film examines, with great intelligence, everything from cultural collision to urban development and economic inequality.

Will (Jude Law) is a London architect who feels like he has become increasingly shut off from everything around him. His Swedish girlfriend (Robin Wright Penn) has become emotionally distant, too busy caring for her behaviourally-challenged daughter. Furthermore, the Kings Cross area he is trying to re-develop is a foreign land to him. When a young Serbian refugee living in a nearby council estate breaks into his offices, Will follows him home. He’s not quite sure why—Law’s characters are so often out-of-touch with their own motives and desires—but Will wants to somehow reach out to the boy. When he discovers that the boy’s mother, Amira (Juliette Binoche), is a tailor, he begins to bring his clothes by for mending. Gradually, he finds himself falling in love with her.

While its ending feels uncomfortably forced, Minghella’s script contains some captivating stuff. Will’s journey is one that applies to anyone who finds themselves in a position of privilege in an increasingly polyglot and foreign city. As he hangs out with Eastern European hookers outside of his office, waiting for the robbers to return, Will is unconsciously exploring the world he’s attempting to revitalize.

This isn’t the kind of film we’ve grown used to from Minghella. While it is just as well crafted, moving and intelligent as The Talented Mr. Ripley, The English Patient and Cold Mountain, Breaking and Entering feels more raw and urgent than his previous films. And thankfully so.

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There hasn’t been a lot of critical goodwill directed towards Steven Zaillian’s All the King’s Men. Not surprising though. Critics—or at least the critics that I end up lining up with— are a crotchety bunch. They hate it when Hollywood releases its few Oscar shoe-ins, complete with self-regarding performances from actors who loudly trumpet their political causes. These films are almost their own genre. You know what I’m talking about: starring Oscar-nominee this and Golden-Globe-winning that, and featuring a bravura performance from that surly guy who takes everything so seriously. All the King’s Men is one of those movies.

Despite this, All the King’s Men is quite good. For one, I give it points for being unashamed of its intelligence. It’s an adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel after all. It could have cut all Warren’s discussions about virtue and truth, and the extent to which both must be pulled from the mire of evil and ignorance (otherwise known as “the shit”) but it didn’t. Furthermore, the film is almost universally well acted. Anthony Hopkins, in particular, is excellent as Judge Montague Irwin, the man who raised journalist-cum-political advisor Jack Burden from an early age.

Where the film stumbles a bit is in its depiction of Louisiana populist Willy Stark. I don’t mean to say that Sean Penn doesn’t give a spellbinding performance. He does. I just think it’s the wrong performance. When Stark makes the transformation from dumb, do-gooder yokel to empowered political force, he should retain a degree of his original likeability. If not, it seems strange that so many, Jack Burden (Jude Law) included, would gravitate to him. In Penn’s hands, though, Stark breathes fire and foams at the mouth. It doesn’t help that, wherever possible, Zaillian throws in gothic, quasi-Tim Burton visual touches, all of which suggest that Stark is a more handsome version of Danny De Vito’s Penguin. Stark eventually ends up as corrupt as those he began the film attacking, but this encroaching evil is too obviously telegraphed.

As a result, Zaillian fails to get across the real struggle taking going on within Burden: the blue-blood’s simultaneous desire to annihilate and cherish the privileged class from which he sprang. With Jack’s psychology left murky and Stark portrayed as a rabid nutcase, All the King’s Men becomes more an assemblage of interesting scenes than a brilliant film.