For the love of hu­man­ity

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - David Stratton

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

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