For the love of humanity
JONATHAN Kasdan has been around movies since he was little. When he was a child, his father, Lawrence, a writerdirector with a generally distinguished filmography, cast him in some of his films: The Big Chill , Silverado and The Accidental Tourist , among others.
Now Lawrence is executive producer for his son’s first feature as writer- director, In the Land of Women, a film that, with its suburban settings and interest in the lives of ordinary people, threatens to indulge in cliches but manages to avoid most of them. That’s because the writing is dry, sharp and intelligent, and the characters are well delineated, almost painfully so.
The central character is Carter Webb ( Adam Brody), about the same age ( late 20s) as the director and, like him, raised in Hollywood. I don’t know if there are autobiographical elements to the story, but it seems likely.
We meet Carter at a devastating moment in his life: he’s sitting in a North Hollywood coffee shop with Sophie ( Elena Anaya), his gorgeous girlfriend and, he thinks, his one true love. But Sophie has recently achieved fame as a model ( their intimate conversation is interrupted by three teen girls who have recognised her) and she is on her way to a glamorous lifestyle in which the somewhat nerdy Carter will play no part. Neatly, Kasdan will end the film with a scene in another coffee shop, bringing the drama full circle.
Carter tearfully confides to his mother ( JoBeth Williams) that his love affair is over, but she’s not particularly sympathetic. He decides to leave Los Angeles and travel across the country to Michigan, where his grandmother ( Olympia Dukakis) says she is dying. His career seems not to matter to him very much, and no wonder: he wants to write movies but is stuck writing scripts for soft- core porn, and he can’t get started on a script about his experiences in high school.
These preliminaries are briskly dealt with and Carter is soon in the suburbs of Michigan, where his grandmother, though cranky and rather vague, seems physically healthy.
Unexpectedly, Carter becomes involved with a woman who is more seriously ill when he befriends Sarah Hardwicke ( Meg Ryan), who lives across the road with her faithless husband ( Clark Gregg) and two daughters, Lucy ( Kristen Stewart), a beautiful 17- year- old, and Paige ( Makenzie Vega), a wiser- than- her- years preteen.
Rather than fall hook, line and sinker for the precocious Lucy, as you might expect, Carter finds himself drawn to Sarah, who confides that she has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Thankfully, the film, like Sarah, refuses to wallow in negativity. The freshness of Kasdan’s writing and the excellence of his actors ensures that all of the characters are believably vulnerable.
Scene after scene develops in unexpected ways that seem imbued with essential truth. I was reminded of another recent film that was also set in the suburbs of an American city and dealt movingly with a mother and her daughters: Mike Binder’s The Upside of Anger . Kasdan’s film isn’t, in the end, quite as original as Binder’s but it’s interested in similar elements: in the difficulties of communicating the most intensely personal matters to family and friends.
* * * QUITE the opposite of that small, everyday story, Michael Apted’s new film, Amazing Grace , is a big, important story, a reminder of the days when principled politicians stood up for what they believed was right, even if it was against the interests of their political party.
In the late 18th century, William Wilberforce ( Ioan Gruffudd), a Tory member of the British parliament, became the leading spokesman for the abolition of the slave trade. He faced near total opposition on both sides of the house, though he had the tacit approval of William Pitt ( Benedict Cumberbatch), who was soon to become the country’s youngest prime minister.
The entrenched position was that the economy was founded on slavery; eliminate the slave trade and the economy would collapse. It sounds a little similar to the debate on climate change.
Wilberforce’s story is full of colourful characters. There’s the leader of the Whig Party, in opposition to the Tories, Charles Fox ( Michael Gambon), who, somewhat surprisingly, becomes an ally of Wilberforce. There are his dedicated opponents Lord Tarleton ( Ciaran Hinds) and the Duke of Clarence ( Toby Jones). There is Thomas Clarkson ( Rufus Sewell), an anti- slavery activist, and John Newton ( Albert Finney), a former slaveship captain turned monk and the composer of the hymn after which this film is named.
With all these individuals juggling for attention — and I haven’t mentioned Youssou N’Dour as a freed slave or Romola Garai as the woman Wilberforce marries — you would think there’d be enough material for a major film.
But Apted is stuck with a screenplay, by Stephen Knight, mostly composed of parliamentary debates and political discussions, and the result is, sadly, a bit dull.
No negativity: Meg Ryan in In the Land of Women