Directed by Jonathan Glazer, written by Milo Addica, Jean-Claude Carriere and Jonathan Glazer, and produced by Lizie Gower, Nick Morris, Jean-Louis Piel and Wang Wei. Released in 2004.
Anna – Nicole Kidman
Sean – Cameron Bright
Joseph – Danny Huston
Eleanor – Lauren Bacall
and others: these are the main ones.
Anna’s husband, Sean - we never really meet him - collapses and dies, presumably of a heart attack, under a bridge in a park. Ten years later, Anna is engaged to be married – to Joseph – and is completely stunned when a ten-year-old boy turns up claiming to be Sean. He knows a great deal of personal information (that he couldn’t possibly know if he was just an average ten-year-old boy), he doesn’t want Anna to marry Joseph, and he – supposedly – still has feelings for Anna.
In order to convince the boy (and, it seems, herself) that he’s not Sean, he is invited to spend a night with the family. She becomes more and more convinced that he is who he says he is…
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that it sounds like a great idea. It does, too. Great enough for me to want to go and see it, in any case. The trailer has an exceptional moment: when Sean first announces who he is in front of Anna, and Anna ridicules him, he drops – as if unconscious – to his knees, and topples forward. It’s a powerful moment, more powerful as it is out of the context of the rest of the film, which – theoretically – should make it more powerful when the moment is back where it should be. And there’s the problem…
The plot of the film is so paper thin that the beautifully conceived moments within it have no context to support them. The moment where Sean collapses is perfect, the scenes in the family home are engaging and tense (although the presence of Lauren Bacall certainly does help: the fact that she acts Kidman of the screen doesn’t particularly). The surprise twist (which centres on the original Sean’s brother) adds, I suppose, a little frisson. The intervening moments, however, are little more than ways of getting from one set piece to another: there’s no narrative drive to keep an audience in the cinema.
Some of the moments, too, are just plain bad. At one stage, Anna is in the bath when Sean comes into the bathroom (don’t they lock bathroom doors in America?). Sean begins to take his clothes off: the audience begins to get antsy. Sean, now naked, climbs into the bath with Anna – a ten-year-old boy in the bath with a mature adult. The audience is, frankly, disturbed. Anna tells Sean to get out of the bath. Now, I appreciate what’s supposed to be happening: Anna is all confused, and she would desperately like to have a bath with her dead husband (that sounds wrong, but you know what I mean), and, therefore, lets Sean get into the bath. It should be a moment of extreme tension and electricity. I suspect, though, that one of the writers thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be a good idea if we had a moment where Sean is in the bath with Anna?’ and the rest agreed. They then had to work out how to get Sean into the bath with Anna. A good moment ruined by lack of narrative drive. Meanwhile, the audience is – metaphorically – on its feet screaming at the screen. For goodness sake, Anna! There’s a ten-year-old boy getting undressed in your bathroom! He’s naked, Anna! Anna! He’s getting into the bath with you! Make him stop. Somebody make him stop!
And what of Nicole? Well, what of her? Her performance is stunning, and for all the wrong reasons. When the script gives her something to do, she is over demonstrative, loud and violently unconvincing. When the script gives her nothing to do, she fades to the point of transparency. One of the ‘key’ moments is, supposedly, when Anna, at the opera, begins to realise that Sean might actually be who he says he is. The camera stays on her face, as close as it can be pretty much, for what must be two, three minutes. It feels like hours. She watches, and twitches, and underplays furiously, as the thoughts pass through her mind. It’s like having a tooth pulled. I guess I could feel horribly uncharitable about her performance, but I don’t: she doesn’t ruin the film – it’s ruined anyway; and she’s a good actress – The Stepford Wives is proof of that. It does beg the question, though, of why she accepted the part.
I have an answer. I won’t give away the end of the film. It’s not that I don’t want the ending to be spoiled, particularly, or that I want to make sure that hordes of people buy the DVD. I just don’t need the earache, that’s all. I think that the film originally had a very different ending, an explosive, Sixth Sense, gut-wrenching climax. And that that, and with it, most of the explanatory narrative of the film, ended up on the cutting room floor. Someone got too nervous, and decided to pull the plug on the original idea. Why else three writers, an incomprehensible plot, some (truly) dreadful acting, and a conclusion that (unfortunately) has to be seen to be believed? It must have been a good idea to begin with… mustn’t it?
Factual details from www.imdb.com