Friday October 29, 1999
"Dreaming of Joseph Lees" paints a portrait of a young woman who must at last assert herself if she is to have any hope of happiness. The beauty of this English picture is that until its very last seconds we don't know if she will or not, for her story could just as credibly go either way. However, by then we've long since become caught up in her psychological struggle.
Her name is Eva (Samantha Morton), and when we meet her we're surprised to discover that the year is 1958 and not 1938, so out of date is her attire. Eva is the pretty and proper young secretary at a sawmill in Somerset, England, where she lives in a striking-looking but austere old house with her widowed father (Frank Finlay), whose poor hearing is symbolic of his obtuseness.
She has an ally in her bright adolescent sister Janie (Lauren Richardson), who is more perceptive and aware than Eva realizes. Director Eric Styles and writer Catherine Linstrum swiftly suggest that ancient and picturesque Somerset might be a nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there; it's dull to its core. Eva's existence is so drab it's no wonder she dreams constantly of her handsome second cousin Joseph Lees (Rupert Graves), a geologist who recently lost his right leg in a quarry explosion in Italy.
In the meantime, Eva has attracted the interest of a pig farmer, Harry (Lee Ross), a sturdy, plain-looking young man of great intensity who hovers over her clumsily. Harry's constant, persistent attentions, coupled with her sexual and emotional longing, eventually cause Eva to decide to stop daydreaming about Joseph and settle for Harry, though she will live with but not marry him. Eva's decision is clearly daring for her time and place, and it predictably precipitates an avalanche of passion on the part of Harry, whose love for her is all-consuming. Who should then show up but Joseph, and the attraction between the second cousins is emphatically mutual.
"Dreaming of Joseph Lees" is in the long tradition of English movies about repressed emotions and their calamitous consequences. (The sisters Bronte would have appreciated this story.) Without being preachy about it the filmmakers make it clear that Eva is in a situation where little consideration is given to a woman's right to happiness, which makes it all the more difficult for her to cope with her predicament. What's more, as her feelings for Joseph intensify, Harry starts unraveling. Torn between love and duty, Eva feels her spirit being crushed to pieces.
Filmed entirely on the Isle of Man, "Dreaming of Joseph Lees" is a beautifully articulated and acutely perceptive work with impeccable, carefully shaded performances. You can feel the lives of its people weighing them down, yet the filmmakers surprise us with how effectively they can involve us so deeply in so bleak a picture.
Dreaming of Joseph Lees, 1999. R, for some sexuality. A Fox Searchlight Pictures presentation. Director Eric Styles. Producer Christopher Milburn. Executive producer Mark Thomas. Screenplay Catherine Linstrum. Cinematographer Jimmy Dibling. Editor Caroline Limmer. Music Zbigniew Preisner. Costumes Maggie Chappelhow. Production designer Humphrey Jaeger. Art director Lucy Nias. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. Samantha Morton as Eva. Rupert Graves as Joseph Lees. Lee Ross as Harry. Frank Finlay as Father. Lauren Richardson as Janie.