Friday January 23, 1998
As unlikely as it may sound, the sexual fantasies of a middle-aged British botanist-illustrator do not necessarily make for an entertaining 90 or so minutes of cinema, even in the hands of the late brilliant television writer Dennis Potter.
This is especially true when the director is trying so hard to be profound and ends up being inaccessible.
"Secret Friends," the feature film directing debut by Potter, who wrote the BBC series "Pennies From Heaven" and "The Singing Detective," is a disappointment. Potter has been responsible for some startling television--including the controversial "Brimstone and Treacle," which was repressed for years because of its depiction of the devil raping a handicapped girl--but what he has delivered with "Secret Friends" is a scattering of alarming images that never coalesce into anything meaningful.
The sewers that are men's minds have been traveled by Potter before. This time he goes inside the psyche of his illustrator, John (Alan Bates), which is a rather untidy place: Memories of John's oppressive childhood, his guilt about sex and his fears that something horrible has happened that he can't remember, crash together and flash across the screen and lead us to the inescapable conclusion that John is totally mad.
Or dreaming. And what he dreams about most is his wife, Helen (played by Gina Bellman, who was the object of desire in Potter's four-part BBC series "Blackeyes"), and the sex games they play: These are mainly concerned with Helen's pretending to be a prostitute, something that's racking John with guilt and spilling over from his subconscious to his conscious.
At least that's what seems to be happening. According to the production notes, the entire film occurs during a train ride taken by John and his wife. But there's nothing to establish that for the audience, and Potter subsequently reduces the line between action and fantasy until it is indiscernible. And we're left twisting in the wind. This may have been Potter's intention, but by failing to give us any delineation of what's happening in the world and what's happening only in John's mind, he removes what dramatic urgency his story generates.
Added to the film's other problems is the seemingly mild nature of John's anxieties. His childhood featured a repressive minister father who lectured him sternly on botany and a mother with a cleft palate. It's hardly the stuff serial killers are made of. Also plaguing John--in addition to his puritanical sexual attitude--is his "secret friend," an imaginary childhood companion that has trailed him to adulthood. This exacerbates the plight of the audience, which is already having trouble figuring out when Potter is in or out of John's mind.
Examined piece by piece, "Secret Friends" has a lot of solid stuff to it, especially the acting: Bates is manic and convincing; Bellman portrays the prim and whorish Helens with equal confidence. And Potter knows how to captivate an audience visually. But the story, like John, doesn't know who it is or where it's going.
Secret Friends, 1998. Unrated. A Whistling Gypsy production presented by Film Four International. Writer-director Dennis Potter. Producer Rosemarie Whitman. Executive producers Robert Michael Geisler, John Roberdeau. Associate producer Alison Barnett. Photography Sue Gibson. Editor Clare Douglas. Costumes Sharon Lewis. Music Nicholas Russell-Pavier. Production designer Guy Williamson. Art director Sarah Horton. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes. Alan Bates as John. Gina Bellman as Helen. Frances Barber as Angela. Tony Doyle as Martin.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times