3 SAVAGE COMMENTARIES ON THE BRITISH SCENE

With "Withnail and I," "Wish You Were Here" and "Rita, Sue and Bob, Too!", which arrives this week, we have a brilliant display of what British film makers seem to excel at these days: savage social commentary thoroughly disguised as comedy. So well disguised, in fact, that the pill is down and absorbed before we taste its bitterness.

The first two are set in the past: Bruce Robinson's "Withnail" comes at the end of Britain's Swinging '60s, in a country careening toward the greatest drug hangover in history, while the postwar constrictedness of the early 1950s is the period of David Leland's "Wish You Were Here."

"Rita, Sue" is plonked flat-footedly and without apology in the England of today, and sets its pair of lusty, giggling 16-year-old schoolgirls among the Estate housing projects and shabbiness of the depressed industrial North, one of the most soul-crushing settings imaginable. (Directed by Alan Clarke, it's from a play by Andrea Dunbar, who grew up in one of those loftily named projects, Buttershaw, to be precise.)

On every side of these ferocious delights are reminders of caste and class, the ties that have bound England forever and seem to have loosened not one iota, no matter how high anyone's hopes may have been when the Beatles ruled the world. See these three films and you understand with piercing clarity the hypocrisies Joe Orton was attacking in "Loot" (something you will never understand if you see only his biographical film, "Prick Up Your Ears"). If you have spent any time at all with Michael Apted's "28-Up," the documentary that follows a handful of squirming, sunny kindergarteners through their next 21 years, you know the irrevocable effect of a public vs. a private school education in Britain. These are desperately sobering visions.

Yet the heart of each of these three films radiates with a curious optimism. Their shining central characters--three of them very young girls, one an actor in his late 20s--will absolutely prevail, we have not an instant's doubt of that.

I'm not too sure about Withnail himself, that dour, drugged-down self-styled Byronic hero, acid-etched by Richard E. Grant. There's a sudden illumination at the movie's end that he may truly be carrying some talent under all that posturing, but whether or not he can make it to totter into the new decade is anyone's wild guess. But about Marwood--the "and I" whose name is almost never heard--played with sturdy reticence by Paul McGann, there is no doubt either. Not only because he's the clearly autobiographical figure of the piece, and we now know that Robinson himself has gone on to write ("The Killing Fields"), act (the devilishly handsome British lieutenant who became the object of Adele H.'s obsession) and now direct, but because of some nut-like strength to the young man himself.

(Interestingly enough, in terms of the tenacity that defines all three winners, it's Marwood who's the commoner, Withnail the aristocrat.)

In the screenplay of "Mona Lisa," which he co-wrote with Neil Jordan, David Leland hinted at an inner, special resilience that enables characters to rise above their circumstances. But he really laid out that feeling with a special radiance in his directorial debut, "Wish You Were Here," by casting Emily Lloyd (interview on Page 32) as his willful, wonderful heroine. With a whirling pinwheel as her insouciant emblem--significantly transferred from one vehicle to another at the final scene--Lloyd must flout tradition, shock her elders (and risk shocking us) with her truly inventive sass, yet convince us that the task she's set for herself at the film's end will not weigh her down irrevocably.

In young Lloyd's hands, it's a piece of cake. She appears to be one of those God-given naturals who, in combination with an acutely sensitive director, can give a heightened perception of her own age. There are nuances and shadings to Emily Lloyd's Lynda that can tear you apart, only seconds before the next burst of laughter.

I wonder if "Wish You Were Here" may not hit women in a quite different way than it does men. Among the women I've spoken to, there hasn't been one for whom the film didn't unearth some harrowing memory--apparently outrageously bad choices seem to be the rule, not the exception, in the adolescence of remarkable women. But there's something about the resolute self-destructiveness in this 16-year-old's choice of an "experienced" lover that is both poignant and terribly resonant to a good many women.

Leland "does" women exquisitely, women of every age. The film's most beautiful scene is at a small restaurant, as Lynda's aunt (played with perfect truth by Pat Heywood), lays out the choices available to her--a triumph of performance between these two, the trapped, willful child and the good, decent woman of uncommon sense.

Leland hasn't exactly given up on the oldest inhabitants in this small seacoast town, either. That genteel tearoom pianist, is the first to rally to Lynda's side after her table-top declaration of independence. Then there's the cheerful old party who opens and closes the film, tap-dancing on the boardwalk, with her setup Victrola and her Union Jacks.

The film's adult men, stiff, preening with their own importance or soured to the point of self-loathing, seem only to look backward. They're very recognizable types: the dark side of the sturdy insular Navy men and their families whom Noel Coward put in his ultra-patriotic "In Which We Serve," fine, genteel littul peeple. (Coward, of course, would rather have been boiled in oil than spend time with them.) It's Leland's doughty English women--the aunt, the tap-dancer, even Lynda's own, almost-spectral mother--who carry the day, who can look ahead and see beyond the strangulating convention and stuffiness of their lives, and can encourage the sterling Lynda on her way.

I don't want to say too much about "Rita, Sue and Bob, Too!" before its opening, except that its two vivid young Northerners are cut from the same stuff--equal parts courageousness and outrageousness, and that whatever British directors are doing to get the kinds of performances that Siobhan Finneran and Michelle Holmes ( and Emily Lloyd) give, it's something miraculous.

And that as a genre, this vein of self-examination cloaked in dryly perceptive comedy seems sadly foreign to American-based film makers: When the underside of America is turned over, it's with dark, dank, melodramatic reverberations, like "River's Edge." We've had precious few who kept their sense of humor in proportion to their indignation: last year's "Something Wild," and "Dim Sum," this year's "Tin Men" and "RoboCop." When you think of the vast material at hand, that's pretty funny right there.

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