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Everyone's a Critic
Are you a fan of the Star Wars films? Discuss prequels, sequels, and everything in between in a special film conference in Post & Riposte.

Arts & Entertainment Preview - June 1999

Film
B Y   E L L A   T A Y L O R

Worlds Collide


Om Puri with Rachel Griffiths (top)
and with director Udayan Prasad


At his best the English writer Hanif Kureishi, who wrote screenplays for the 1980s movies My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, has a bracing take -- at once jaundiced, antic, and loving -- on the anarchic shifts in British race relations as the country tries to adapt to its burgeoning ethnic diversity. Adapted from a New Yorker short story by Kureishi and directed by Udayan Prasad, My Son the Fanatic tells the story of Parvez (played with wry dignity by the Indian actor Om Puri), an Anglo-Pakistani cabbie who has carved out a decent life for his family in the northern English city of Bradford. Parvez's humdrum existence is disrupted by his growing attraction to an intense young hooker (played by the talented Rachel Griffiths, last seen in Hilary and Jackie), whom he drives to the wild parties of a German businessman (Stellan Skarsgård), aptly named Mr. Schitz. When Parvez's teenaged son (Akpar Kurtha) turns to Islamic fundamentalism to anchor his uncertain identity, the tolerant, unassuming but soulful Parvez finds himself caught between the rigid proscriptions of tradition and the heedless pleasure-seeking of the businessman's world. Though it doesn't quite achieve the anarchic joy of My Beautiful Laundrette, which remains one of the funniest and most trenchant social critiques in the history of English film, My Son the Fanatic brings the same acidic verve to its observations on race and generational conflict in the nineties. Only now the political climate has changed: the younger set rebels not to the left but to the extreme Islamic right. Given that constituency's efforts to police the arts on moral grounds, the movie's lampooning of Islam's purist wing may invoke some of the fury heaped on Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses.


Blind Justice


The Winslow Boy  

After trying for many years to revive Terence Rattigan's hit 1948 play, The Winslow Boy, for the stage, David Mamet brings the courtroom melodrama to the screen (a 1948 version, scripted by Rattigan, starred Robert Donat) and, true to his obsessions, turns it into a meditation on moral choice and the inadequacy of ideology (as opposed to principled passion). Based on a real-life legal case in which a young naval cadet was expelled from his academy for allegedly stealing a five-shilling money order, the movie stars the estimable Nigel Hawthorne as Arthur Winslow, the boy's father, who, in seeking to clear his son's name, takes the case all the way to the House of Lords, provoking a national debate on English justice. Arthur's tenacious struggle imposes nearly unbearable strain on his family, especially his suffragette daughter, Catherine (Rebecca Pidgeon), who opposes hiring the conservative defense lawyer Sir Robert Morton (Jeremy Northam, recently a swoony heartthrob opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in Emma) and whose engagement to the son of an Admiralty bigwig is threatened by the notoriety surrounding the case. Though Mamet offers an absorbing meta-reading of the events, The Winslow Boy suffers from casting by family connection rather than merit. The writer-director's wife, Rebecca Pidgeon, renders Catherine with studied immobility, while her brother, Matthew Pidgeon, plays Catherine's fun-loving older brother without discernible personality. Mamet's habit of introducing strategic stiffness into the delivery of dialogue to underscore the unreliability of language invests the movie with a lumbering, wooden quality that is distracting rather than illuminating.


Futile Attraction


  Bertolucci (left) and Newton

Time was when the Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci made smart, gorgeous films (The Spider's Stratagem, The Conformist) that explored the thick web of messy relations in the compromised marriage of politics and sex. Sadly, his recent films (Little Buddha and Stealing Beauty) have gone soft with a daffy "spirituality" that renders their visual poetry banal. Bertolucci's baffling new film, Besieged, begins with a lament for an unnamed African dictatorship and ends with a love affair of sorts. In between is a chamber piece that focuses on the tortured attraction between a shy Rome-based English musician (played with unaccustomed awkwardness by David Thewlis, the gifted star of Mike Leigh's Naked) and the African expatriate (Thandie Newton, last heard speaking in tongues in Beloved) who cleans his house while breezing through medical school on straight As and worrying over her imprisoned husband. The musician casts longing looks at his lovely housekeeper while playing Mozart; she busies herself with an excess of dusting while introducing him to Papa Wemba. The rest -- a dance of mutual espionage as the two go about their daily business -- is mostly silence. Which may be a mercy, given that the minimal screenplay of this psychologically and politically undercooked movie fairly groans with clichés about love and loss.


Everyone's a Critic
Are you a fan of the Star Wars movies? Discuss prequels, sequels, and everything in between in a special film conference in Post & Riposte.
Ella Taylor is a film critic for LA Weekly.

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Photo Credits -- My Son the Fanatic: John Shakerley. Besieged: A. Bulgari. The Winslow Boy: Liam Daniel.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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