The Designated Mourner

Friday June 6, 1997

     "The Designated Mourner" is as demanding a movie-going experience as you're ever likely to have. Director David Hare, one of Britain's most celebrated playwrights, has brought Wallace Shawn's play, a London sensation last year, to the screen with the utmost rigor and simplicity.
     Mike Nichols, Miranda Richardson and David de Keyser, in re-creating their stage roles, are seated, a table in front of them, with a gold-leafed wall behind them. Without any exposition whatsoever they talk for 94 minutes, which means we are left to make sense of Shawn's torrent of words the best we can.
     Even exerting the utmost concentration, you may have trouble figuring out what's going on. It seems that Jack (Nichols), in the title role, married Judy (Richardson), the daughter of De Keyser's Howard, a literary lion, a poet and thinker imperiled by an ever more oppressive regime. Although shrewd, Jack could never quite measure up to the rarefied and humane intellectual circles of his father-in-law and wife, which the government is eager to crush as a source of dissent.
     Therefore, Jack finds it not so difficult to slide into the dispassionate "low-brow" mode now advocated by the government. Ultimately, it's left to him to lament the loss of a world he at once envied and disdained because he felt excluded from it.
     The country in which all this is happening is never revealed, even though the universal is best perceived in the particular rather than the vague. Even so, Shawn's passionate anti-totalitarian stance is clear enough, as is his ability to enjoy the simple pleasures of life--the latter a characteristic he displayed in "My Dinner With Andre," an equally talky but considerably more accessible film.
     *
     Shawn seems to be attempting to illuminate the human condition free of conventional dramaturgy and in this he succeeds, although to wearying effect, at least on the screen. He seems to be suggesting that traditional storytelling is unnecessary and even distracting in eliciting the entire range of human emotions--love, envy, despair, boredom, fear, etc. In Nichols (in his first major screen role), Richardson and De Keyser, he's got actors who are able to express this wide range brilliantly.
     Yet Hare's approach, which has his three actors directly addressing the camera most of the time, only rarely talking to one another, presents acute challenges to attention spans. The case is invariably made for such talkathons that the camera peers right into the souls of the characters the actors are playing. However, under the weight of an avalanche of words, you may find yourself drifting and thereby become caught up in appraising the superb technique of the actors--how expressive they are, what wonderful voices they all have, what they can do with a pause, a gesture, a movement of their bodies.
     Acutely visual directors from D.W. Griffith to Michelangelo Antonioni and beyond have bared many a soul but have also expressed many of the same emotions and similar concerns with memorably enduring images; this Hare does not do. It is entirely understandable and admirable that Hare et al would want to film "The Designated Mourner." This simply means hard work for the viewer, for there is nothing like the steady gaze of a long-held camera to drain meaning from a verbal barrage.


The Designated Mourner, 1997. R, for some language. A First Look Pictures release of a BBC Films presentation of a Greenpoint Film. Director David Hare. Producers Donna Grey, Hare. Executive producers Mark Shivas, Simon Curtis. Screenplay by Wallace Shawn. Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton. Editor George Aker. Music Richard Hartley. Production designer Bob Crowley. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. Mike Nichols as Jack. Miranda Richardson as Judy. David de Keyser as Howard.

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