Both true and contrived, genuine and slick, "Guinevere" details one of the world's oldest stories: the relationship, at once mentoring and romantic, between an older man and a much younger, beautiful woman. We have a right to yawn, but we don't, and Sarah Polley is the reason.
Praising this exceptional Canadian actress is not to minimize the good work of Audrey Wells, a screenwriting veteran with a decade's experience ("The Truth About Cats and Dogs," "George of the Jungle"), who makes a solid directing debut with a shrewd script that was a winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriter Award at Sundance earlier this year.
But to see Polley take a scenario that's awfully familiar and convincingly convey that, as her young and naive character Harper Sloane truly believes, something this unique and wonderful has never happened to anyone before, is to witness acting talent of a very high order. Polley has made a strong impression in other films, "The Sweet Hereafter" and "Go" among them, but "Guinevere" will be the one that makes her a full-blown star.
We hear Harper's voice before we meet her, speaking in the confident been-there tones of a 25-year-old describing tasteful nude photographs she posed for in the distant past, i.e. when she was 21. The photographer? "He was the worst man I ever met, or maybe the best, I'm still not sure," she says. "If you're supposed to learn from your mistakes, then he's the best mistake I ever made."
Back we go five years, to Harper's gilded-cage existence as the youngest daughter of a San Francisco family of legal barracudas led by a take-no-prisoners mother (a splendid Jean Smart), who's both incisive and terrifying.
It's the wedding day of Harper's older sister, and Harper, though strikingly beautiful, sees herself as so awkward and gawky that she tries to hide in the pantry with only champagne for company. Not surprisingly, she attracts the attention of Cornelius Fitzpatrick (Stephen Rea), who, we can be sure, has had experience with young women like this before.
Though he's working today as the wedding photographer, Connie, as everyone calls him, proves to be exactly what his appearance advertises: the grand artiste with the looks and the loft to complete the package. Unshaven, with unruly hair and a white scarf knotted casually around his neck, he is Mr. Irish Bedroom Eyes, and when we find out that he drinks whiskey straight and listens to cool jazz far into the night, it merely completes the picture.
Though he's old enough to be her father, Connie and Harper become fast pals, in immediate complicity, and soon he's calling her his Guinevere, after King Arthur's queen, and she is visiting him in his hipster's loft, completely oblivious to the fact that, as everyone from Connie's ex-girlfriends to a seamstress who works down the hall knows, she's not the first to walk down that particular path.
Harper is supposed to follow in the family tradition and go to Harvard Law, but her infatuation with Connie, especially the way he informs her, based on nothing anyone else has noticed, that she has the makings of a great photographer, changes her plans.
Telling her mother she's living with a friend, Harper moves in with Connie, who, presenting himself as a one-man artists' colony, says she can stay only if she commits herself to study and the creative process. Though she protests, saying, "You're mistaking me for someone with potential," Harper is obviously pleased that someone so, uh, mature, is paying attention to her, just as Connie is pleased that someone so young and beautiful is paying attention to him.
You don't have to have sat through all three versions of "A Star Is Born" to know every inch of this territory, but the wonderful thing about Polley's performance is that she keeps her character from letting on or even realizing she's living out a gigantic cliche.
An actress of enormous skill and poise (she started working at age 4 and had a major TV following in Canada), Polley can convey any emotion you can name, and a few you can't put your finger on. There is a quiet force to her work, plus an ability to instinctively go for the truth in every scene. To watch her face during the film's big seduction scene is to see a combination of confusion, hesitation and anticipation that couldn't be more real and compelling.
Rea, though an undeniably fine actor ("The Crying Game," "Interview With the Vampire"), feels hamstrung, as Polley is not, by his familiar part and by having to say lines like, "You take a picture when it hurts so bad you can't stand it." Smart, by contrast, makes the absolute most out of her small part, using her brief but indelible scenes to convey that, as writer-director Wells puts it, "she is the rightest person in the movie," albeit a terribly nasty one.
Wells is sensitive to the implications of the Harper-Connie relationship for both parties and to how much it can mean for anyone to have confidence in you, no matter (as "The Muse" also points out) who that person turns out to be. Despite its ever-present obviousness, "Guinevere" is involving enough to make us look forward to Wells' next work. And, it goes without saying, to Polley's as well.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong language and sexuality. Times guidelines: a discreet seduction scene, brief nudity and a scene involving urination.
Sarah Polley: Harper Sloane
Stephen Rea: Connie Fitzpatrick
Gina Gershon: Billie
Jean Smart: Deborah Sloane
Released by Miramax Films. Director Audrey Wells. Producers Brad Weston, Jonathan King. Executive producer Avi Lerner. Screenplay Audrey Wells. Cinematographer Charles Minsky. Editor Dody Dorn. Costumes Genevieve Tyrell. Music Christopher Beck. Production design Stephen McCabe. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.
In limited release