So you know all the stuff that was going on offscreen during Dunkirk? That’s centerstage in Darkest Hour, a historical drama that observes British higher-ups during a decisive moment in 1940. Most especially, it focuses on Winston Churchill, who had been Prime Minister less than a month when the evacuation of Dunkirk was executed. But that unlikely event—300,000 trapped British troops ferried across the English Channel from France—is merely one piece of Darkest Hour.
Mississippi Grind (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD) plays like a seventies character drama, a meandering road movie through the byways of American characters who populate the card rooms and dice tables and racetracks, and an oddball buddy movie built on a chance encounter and an instant kinship between two losers gambling their lives away. Ryan Reynolds is Curtis, a good looking guy who has all the outward suggestions of a charming hustler, and Ben Mendelsohn is the self-destructive Gerry, killing his nights and his income at cards and sports bookies, betting everything on the fantasy of instant success on a single good night.
These guys are buddies by chance—they meet over a hand of cards and bond over top-shelf whiskey—and travelling companions by impulse when Gerry decides to follow Curtis to a big tournament in New Orleans. Curtis is generous and trusting to a fault, or maybe to a need, and a storyteller whose tales may or may not be in the orbit of reality. He runs in gambling circles for the charge of the action, not just the cards but the byplay, the people, that cardroom culture of oddball personalities. Gerry is a gambling addict and a pathological liar whose past is a wrecking yard of ruined relationships and failed promises and impulsive long shots and whose future is already in hawk to a loan shark (Alfre Woodard in a single scene-stealing appearance).
Even in our small world, a great actor can be hidden from mainstream view by geography. When the 2010 Aussie crime picture Animal Kingdom banged out from Down Under, it boosted a group of veteran performers—Jacki Weaver and Joel Edgerton among them—onto Hollywood short lists. The big revelation was a slightly built actor with a weak chin, one Ben Mendelsohn, who burned a hole in the screen as a frightening psycho. Mendelsohn was over 40 and well-traveled when that film came out; he’s grabbed visible roles in high-profile movies (The Dark Knight Rises) and TV (Bloodline) since. But Mississippi Grind is the performance that erases any doubt that Mendelsohn is one of the most exciting people on screen these days.
Watching Adore, one isn’t often prompted to admire Anne Fontaine’s directorial astuteness when it comes to framing and composing her strange fable. It’s more a matter of going with the flow, surrendering to rhythms of light, desire, grace. Coming away, one feels a little dazed, as though one had just come in out of the sun after a long, slow swim. And Adore’s spell lingers. The power of that spell radiates from the sensual allure and intelligence of the two actresses—Naomi Watts as Lil and Robin Wright as Roz—who are the heart of this uterine tale of almost-incest.
Both blondes are in their forties, and their flesh has seasoned past the flawless pliancy of youth. Watts’ beauty is softer, more vulnerable, at times almost childlike; Wright is all killer jawline, long limbs, artfully windswept short hair, erotically androgynous. But each woman’s blue gaze reflects the other’s; basking on a sunny beach, ambling along a path arm in arm, their bodies shimmer into one supple female form.
Best friends since childhood, neighbors in a hillside enclave overlooking a picturesque Australian coastline, Roz and Lil swim lazily, like elegant golden fish, in the serene waters of their conjoined lives. There are husbands, one dead, the other chafing for change (Ben Mendelsohn, poignant as irrelevant spouse), but clearly nothing can penetrate the women’s perfect, enviable rapport. It looks and feels like Eden by the sea, where slimmed-down earth mothers adore their sons, riding the waves like “young gods.”
The boys, one dark, the other flaxen-haired, are best friends as well and, unlike other men, have easy access to their mothers’ charmed circle. Far from having left the nest, Tom (James Frecheville) and Ian (Xavier Samuel) prefer to hang out with their moms, drinking wine, dancing, teasing—in a sort of innocent exclusivity. Then one night, Ian and Roz come together, as though magnetized, in a darkened hallway, falling into bed and consuming love. Outraged, Tom soon finds solace in Lil’s arms.
So, forbidden love. But not the kind that generates delicious frissons of horror and fascination, and certainly not fodder for those who love to cookie-cutter human experience. After brief guilt and a little angst, a mostly blissful ménage-à-quatre ensues, the maternal landscape making room for the muscular young bodies of sons and lovers. The specter of transgressive love never really rises. Rather, there is a sense of completion, of something fated and, yes, natural that has come to pass. We’re way outside realism here, traveling in some primal terra incognita where young men searching for home are welcomed by Penelopes killing time. In one bittersweet interlude, Wright lies naked on her stomach while Ian traces the lovely, curving landscape of her long body. “Soon enough you won’t want me,” his second mother predicts.
Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons, A Dangerous Method) adapted Adore from Doris Lessing‘s “The Grandmothers” (the film was originally and better titled “Two Mothers”); sadly, he’s been of very little service in translating the novella’s sparse dialogue to the screen. He’s wholly stymied by Lessing’s style, the narrative rhythms of a griot recounting the story of a “blue world” where events unfold with a strange, inexorable logic.
Since the 1950s, Lessing has been our preeminent chronicler of the complex politics of love and sexual attraction; she’s excelled in exploring the fraught relationships between generations, the frequent chasms of alienation between parents and children fighting to come of age. Always gloriously un-PC (no simpleminded stuff in Lessing-land), she cuts into the actual body and blood of human connections, transgressive, transcendent, sometimes fatal. In “The Grandmothers”—written in her 80s, mind you—she conjures the terrible beauty and power of matriarchy, close to the old pagan sense.
Style-wise, Fontaine takes a very different approach to “The Grandmothers,” but she doesn’t play Lessing false. She’s lavish in her appreciation of Adore’s spectacular setting; so much of moment takes place on the beach, where waves endlessly rise and fall back, marking and nullifying time. There’s more humor in the film than in the novella: in one wonderful scene, Roz and Lil encourage the latter’s longtime suitor to believe they’re lesbians. Funny, yes, but this hapless male feels real pain and humiliation, standing as though on a stage before the seated, giggling, indifferent women. And there are distaff casualties, too, Mary and Hannah, valuable young women who figure in Tom’s attempt to make a life outside the womb, and Ian’s careless act of cruelty after Roz breaks off their affair.
But above all, Adore celebrates the splendidly expressive faces (and performances) of Watts and Wright. The actors who play Tom and Ian aren’t inadequate; but they’re really extras in this mystery play, more models of masculine beauty than genuinely erotic objects of desire. What these goddesses, so rich and vivid in their emotions and sensuality, see in their boys is flesh of their flesh—“We made that, we made them!”—and what Lessing describes as “a shine of unearthliness that illuminated their two sons, at this time.” (Tempting to wonder what Adore would have been like if Claire Denis had directed it, with her onetime favorite—Grégoire Colin, as he was in Beau Travail—cast as beloved son.)
One might say that Roz and Lil, Wright and Watts, are the mise-en-scène of Adore—and that’s the point of this adult fairy tale. Nothing and no one outside their bell jar paradise—even adorable grandchildren—can claim anything but temporary shelter. Fontaine has a gentler hand than Lessing, who wields a subtle scalpel, and her final reading of this mothers’ tale leans more toward melancholy than the mocking laughter that puts a period to Lessing’s novella. That melancholy rises, like the scent of sun-warmed, salty bodies, netted in a Now that cannot be sustained, no matter what magic earth mothers make.
Straight Shooting, Queen Anne News; September 5, 2013
Copyright © 2013 by Kathleen Murphy