FILM REVIEW : ‘High Season’ a Sophisticated Summer Treat

Times Staff Writer

“High Season” (opening Friday at the Fine Arts) is a summer treat for sophisticates, a contemporary British variation on “A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream” set down in an irresistibly sun-baked and ancient Greek village on the island of Rhodes.

No wonder everyone gets carried away in a highly sensual atmosphere of heat and beauty: those quaint chalk-white buildings, that blue, blue sea and all that ouzo and retsina overflowing. Visitors and inhabitants alike may get woozy, but writer-director Clare Peploe never loses her focus or her light touch--even when she’s being serious. “High Season” exudes spontaneity even though a sizable cast had to be orchestrated through a thicket of complications.

At the center of much swirling, heady activity is a true charmer, Jacqueline Bisset, never more ravishing or relaxed. She’s Katherine, a photographer whose coffee-table book on Greek ruins has proved to be a succes d’estime and who now worries about how she’s going to hold on to her airy mountain-top villa. She has a pretty, sweet teen-age daughter named Chloe (Ruby Baker) and a nearby ex-husband, Patrick (James Fox), a tireless womanizer and a sculptor with whom she clashes over matters of art as with everything else.


Katherine is visited by a cherished old friend and mentor, Basil (Sebastian Shaw), a distinguished art historian, who may have a solution to her problem. Also newly arrived are a young married couple, Rick (Kenneth Branagh) and Carol (Lesley Manville, in a knockout film debut), who have thick British working-class accents and are ostensibly on a second honeymoon.

They are given shelter reluctantly by Katherine’s friend and neighbor Penelope (Irene Papas), a fiery Greek widow who worships her dead husband and is dismayed by her son’s (Paris Tselios) determination to cash in on the tourist trade. Showing up later on is Robert Stephens as a hilariously oily Fifth Avenue art dealer.

Almost no one except the straightforward Katherine is quite what he or she seems, and even Katherine is prepared to bend her principles in order to survive. The point, of course, is not the plot that Peploe and her co-writer brother Mark have such fun with, but how its machinations allow them to reveal to us so much amusing and sometimes touching behavior.

If Katherine and Basil are figures of gallantry and class of immense likability (no matter what they do or have done), Rick and Carol are laughably innocent. Yet there’s no condescension toward them or toward the severe Penelope, who’s too hearty and self-knowing to be a stereotypical black-clad peasant. Even Patrick is so essentially good-natured and unpretentious that Katherine still loves him.

Peploe touches upon the evils of commercialism in art and of tourism in Greece, but only on the run; she’s not about to belabor anything in such sly and delectable circumstances.

It’s no wonder “High Season” works so well, for it has been made by people of distinction and accomplishment, starting with Bisset and with Peploe, whose witty, Oscar-nominated 30-minute “Couples and Robbers” served as a most promising warm-up for her feature directorial debut.

She has worked with Michelangelo Antonioni and with her husband, Bernardo Bertolucci. (Her brother Mark’s many notable collaborations include the Oscar-winning screenplay for “The Last Emperor.”) There’s an easy naturalness in the cinematography of Chris Menges that’s a refreshing contrast to the dazzling formality and ambitiousness of his work on the pretentious “The Mission.”

A veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Shaw has that resonance and elegance we associate with John Gielgud. Branagh is so convincingly unsophisticated you’d never guess he’s just won raves for his Henry V. “High Season” (MPAA-rated R for nudity, adult situations) may be slight, but it’s a winner.