Writer-director Sandra Goldbacher follows up her promising "The Governess" with "Me Without You," an engaging, straightforward narrative about two childhood playmates and the stages of their friendship from 1973 to 2001.
Working with Laurence Coriat, the gifted writer of 1999's "Wonderland," Goldbacher has written rich roles for Anna Friel and Michelle Williams, who excel under Goldbacher's intense direction. "Me Without You" is so personal that it is not at all surprising that Goldbacher drew from her own "best friendship" from age 11 to 17, although in her film she moves well beyond the teens toward 40.
Friel's Marina and Williams' Holly grew up living side by side in a row of matching mock Tudor homes in suburban London. It's a case of opposites attracting, for the two girls have very different temperaments and backgrounds. Holly's parents are a solid, clearly well-educated Jewish couple, Max (Allan Corduner) and Judith (Deborah Findlay), who dote on their only child. Marina's rakish father, Ray (Nicky Henson), is cavalier about his responsibilities, leaving her mother, Linda (Trudie Styler), a party girl and an ex-croupier, perilously despairing. Max is an ideal father, but Judith is compelled to instill in her studious daughter that she is more clever than beautiful, which is untrue. The instability of her family life has an enduring impact on Marina, and Holly develops a crush on Marina's older brother Nat.
When Friel, Williams and Oliver Milburn take over their roles from the well-matched adolescent actors, their characters develop in earnest. By the time Holly and Marina, who is now taking her fashion cues from Madonna, are college roommates in an ancient seaside Brighton flat, the pattern of their relationship is entrenched. Marina is shamelessly manipulative, affectionately demonstrative, alternately loving and cruel. But beneath her brazen ways she feels she is nothing without Holly, who is becoming an independent-thinking intellectual, while her friend says she would rather learn from life than books.
Friel dazzles with Marina's kaleidoscopic mood changes, which shift as often as her hair color and style, while Williams underplays to Friel in revealing Holly's growing need to break away from Marina's possessiveness and to deal with her enduring love for Nat, now a footloose musician captivated by a French actress (Marianne Denicourt).
As we jump to 1982 from 1978--the girls' college days--and on to 1989, Holly agonizes over her undying love for Nat. The big issue, beyond the loosening of Marina's hold on her, is whether Holly and Nat are ever going to get together or whether a relationship will flower if they do. Holly's drawn-out predicament may smack of soap opera, but not unrealistically.
Goldbacher gives us a sense of a real friendship, strained by the need of both women to mature, and embraces the emotional messiness of growing up. Holly is slow but persistent in the process of maturing, while Marina ultimately lets her friend go through it for both of them. Milburn is appealing as Nat, who is as conflicted as Holly. Kyle MacLachlan is droll as a seductive American professor whose effect on both Holly and Marina proves more than he bargained for.
"Me Without You" evokes its various periods deftly in changing personal styles, enriched with an evocative soundtrack featuring primarily '80s songs. The film is a more even and unified work than "The Governess," which was set in the Victorian era. What Goldbacher now needs to do is build upon her skill in directing and writing for actors and complement her storytelling gifts with a bolder, more distinctive visual style for greater overall impact.
MPAA rating: R, for language, sexual content and drug use. Times guidelines: complex themes.
'Me Without You'
Anna Friel ... Marina
Michelle Williams ... Holly
Kyle MacLachlan ... Daniel
Oliver Milburn ... Nat
Trudie Styler ... Linda
A Samuel Goldwyn Co.-Fireworks Pictures release of a Dakota Films production. Director Sandra Goldbacher. Producer Finola Dwyer. Executive producer Jonathan Olsberg. Screenplay Goldbacher and Laurence Coriat. Cinematographer Denis Crossian. Editor Michael Ellis. Music Adrian Johnston. Costumes Rosie Hackett. Makeup and hair design Christine Blundell. Production designer Michael Carlin. Art director Stephen Carter. Set decorator Rebecca Alleway. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.
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