Friday April 9, 1999

     "Metroland," a satisfying story of love and marriage told with humor and insight, finds Christian Bale's Chris and Emily Watson's Marion married eight years, living comfortably in a leafy London suburb with a baby daughter. The year is 1977 when up pops Chris' boyhood friend Toni (Lee Ross), after a long absence, to challenge Chris' assertions of happiness.
     Toni is an unpublished poet who bums around the world, taking the odd teaching job and supported by a rich American girlfriend. "I do what I want," he says.
     From the moment Toni moves in for a visit of an indeterminate length he's accusing his old friend--a former '60s rebel like himself--of selling out and settling for Metroland, that suburban sprawl at the end of the London Underground Metropolitan Line. Toni spouts so many anti-Establishment cliches that he unwittingly verges on caricature. Yet Chris cannot help but recall his Paris idyll in the tumultuous '60s, triggering a long flashback that is so archetypal as to be ever so slightly satirical.
     We see Chris as an aspiring photographer in Paris, apparently subsidized by his parents. Chris lives in a charming garret, presumably on the Left Bank, and meets a lush, lovely young Frenchwoman, Annick ("Mina Tannenbaum's" talented Elsa Zylberstein), who good-naturedly relieves him of his virginity and teaches him to value French directness over evasive English tact. Chris is radiantly happy, feeling completely unfettered and hip, while he and Annick go out a lot and take in "the new Bresson" and "the new Truffaut."
     When Chris encounters Marion, playing cricket with two young Englishmen in a Paris park, he has not sold a single photograph. As he prattles on about the freedom and joy of the bohemian existence, swearing he'll never return to stultifying England and settle down to married life, Marion stops him cold, saying, "Oh, I think you will. You're not original enough not to." Marion, who has an astringent wit, knows exactly what she wants, and what she wants is Chris. She knows herself and knows Chris lots better than he or Annick do.
     By the time director Philip Saville and writer Adrian Hodges, who adapted Julian Barnes' 1980 novel, "Metroland," returns us to 1977 their film bristles with uncertainties and possibilities. Has Chris, who works in an advertising agency, in fact sold out? And will Toni, so eager for Chris to break out of his sedate life, prove the catalyst that strengthens or destroys Chris and Marion's marriage? Once "Metroland" has established this premise it proceeds to its resolution revealingly and persuasively.
     At first you wonder why Watson, the formidable young actress who received Oscar nominations for her performances in "Breaking the Waves" and "Hilary and Jackie," would accept what seems such a secondary role. One ought to know better; slowly but surely Marion emerges as a strong woman, smarter and more perceptive than her sweet-natured but essentially ordinary and conventional husband. You can see why Marion appealed to Watson; she is as cool and controlled as her two previous heroines were tempestuous.
     Yet such is the force of Watson's presence, here deliberately understated, that even when she is off-screen, sometimes for substantial lengths of time, her Marion is rightly the film's dominant figure. Ross is amusing as the essentially phony Toni, and Bale brings Chris fully alive, defining his character through more than a decade of changes. "Metroland," which has an evocative score by Mark Knopfler, formerly of Dire Straits, is a handsome film that offers a gratifyingly adult take on the virtues and travails of growing up.

Metroland, 1999. Unrated. A Lions Gate release of a Pandora Cinema presentation of a Blue Horizon/Mact/Filmania production. Director Philip Saville. Producer Andrew Bendel. Screenplay by Adrian Hodges; from Julian Barnes' novel. Cinematographer Jean-Francois Robin. Editor Greg Miller. Music Mark Knopfler. Costumes Jenny Beavan. Production designer Don Taylor. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. Christian Bale as Chris. Emily Watson as Marion. Lee Ross as Toni. Elsa Zylberstein as Annick.

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