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MOVIE REVIEW : The Past Flows Poetically Through ‘Waterland’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Waterland” (citywide) is a rarity--a movie about mood and memory that doesn’t send you into a stupor. The pull of the past is an almost palpable presence in this film; it overhangs everything like a mist, but the film itself is anything but misty-eyed. Tom Crick (Jeremy Irons), the history professor who unspools his own sorrowful past to his secondary school class, isn’t some sentimentalized twit. He’s a man in anguish trying to survive his own life by historicizing it. His lingering pauses and measured delivery are the ballast that keep him from flying apart.

Crick has been teaching school in Pittsburgh for the past 20 years but grew up in the Fens--the East Anglian marshlands that give the film its title. It’s a poetically perfect place of origin for Tom: its unwavering vistas can seem both limitless and confining. This land reclaimed from the sea still carries the salty tang of past lives. As Tom draws out the story of his boyhood in the Fens, with its incidents of incest and madness and horror, his flashbacks begin to cohere and reverberate; we’re bearing witness to a life constructed image by painful image.

The 1983 novel by Graham Swift upon which the film is based is a shimmery, moody piece of sleight-of-hand narrative, full of digressions and byways that take you in and out of the narrative with a tidal ebb and flow. Swift’s book is so much an emanation of its language that it would seem to be unfilmable, but then again, unfilmable books, like Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” have a way of turning into surprisingly cinematic movies. The screenwriter Peter Prince has done an intelligent, sensitive adaptation; he preserves the book’s spirit, and Swift’s flowing prose rhythms are transposed into a flowing visual style. Stephen Gyllenhaal, who previously directed “A Killing in a Small Texas Town” and “Paris Trout,” two of the best made-for-TV movies from the ‘80s, doesn’t go in for a lot of fancy lyricism or camera tricks. He lets the story wend its way effortlessly in and out of the present. His hunch is that the emotional pull of the material will hook audiences.

It’s a hunch that pays off surprisingly often. When Tom speaks to his class, he isn’t lecturing, he’s summoning up bit by bit the vestiges of his life. There’s a living dead quality about his intonations: The past that has destroyed his present is still the most vibrant thing about him. The early scenes between young Tom and Mary, the girlfriend who will become his wife, have a hazy, plangent quality, but they’re off-putting, too. The jangled youthfulness of these two is unsentimentalized, and that clashes with the meadowy sunniness of their surroundings; we can spot in their faces the erosions of innocence. (The abortion scene that seals their fate is almost overpowering in its depiction of the destruction of that innocence.)

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Grant Warnock and Lena Headey, the actors playing the adolescent Tom and Mary, are so perfectly matched to Irons, and to Sinead Cusack, who plays the adult Mary, that the effect is almost preternatural. They don’t just look and move like each other; they seem to inhabit the same emotional continuum. This is one of the few films ever made about the progress of people’s lives where you really can see, in very clear visual terms, how their adulthood is joined to their youth. (Its R rating is for the abortion scene, language, and sexuality). Irons can seem like a forbidding, soul-chilled actor, and some of that quality comes through in “Waterland.” But he’s able to humanize his chilliness here; his character seems genuinely haunted by the mood-memories that finally impel him back to Fens. Cusack (Irons’ real-life wife) is so horrifyingly distraught that her scenes vibrate with anguish--like the sequence where Mary, who is unable to conceive a child, refuses to give up the baby she has just kidnaped. Cusack has made so few films that she is barely known in this country, but this is a world-class performance. Here is an actress who knows bottomless sorrow.

“Waterland” is by no means defect-free. When the inspiration wavers the film can seem just as musty and unthrilling as those “Masterpiece Theater” reveries it superficially resembles. There are a few scenes when Tom whisks his class back to his childhood that play like “The Twilight Zone” meets “Our Town.” The time shifts occasionally ring false. One of Tom’s hectoring classmates, played by Ethan Hawke, seems to be in the movie to court teen audiences; his wise-guy posturings are enough to make you want to brain him. The score is excessively lush and tends to drown out the quieter moments. But many passages in this film stay with you: you feel they will stay with you as you watch them. It’s an intelligent, meditative movie that assumes the same qualities in its audience. Its artistry is both an invitation and a compliment.

‘Waterland’

Jeremy Irons: Tom Crick

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Sinead Cusack: Mary Crick

Grant Warnock: Young Tom

Lena Headey: Young Mary

A Fine Line Features presentation. Director Stephen Gyllenhaal. Producers Katy McGuinness and Patrick Cassavetti. Executive producers Nik Powell and Stephen Woolley and Ira Deutchman. Screenplay by Peter Prince. Cinematographer Robert Elswit. Editor Lesley Walker. Costumes Lindy Hemming. Music Carter Burwell. Production design Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski. Art director Helen Rayner. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.

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MPAA-rated R (abortion scene, strong language, sexuality).


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