Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5.
France/United Kingdom, 2000. Arts Council of England, British Screen Productions, British Sky Broadcasting, France 2 Cinema, France 3 Cinema, Les Films Alain Sarde, Why Not Productions, Zephyr Films. Screenplay by Emmanuel Bourdieu, Arnaud Desplechin, from a story by Arthur Symons. Cinematography by Eric Gautier. Produced by Chris Curling, Alain Sarde, Gregoire Sorlat. Music by Howard Shore. Production Design by Jon Henson. Costume Design by Nathalie Duerinckx. Film Editing by Herve de Luze, Martine Giordano. Cannes Film Festival 2000.
The title character is one of five children of a poor Jewish family in London, an absent-minded girl who is transfixed by what she sees on the stage when she and her siblings go to the theatre and watch from up in “the gods”. After winning a small part as a maid in a play, she begins a career that develops in tandem her own maturity, including sexual experience with a man that threatens her accomplishments (played by director Arnaud Desplechin’s brother Fabrice). Desplechin guides this narrative with grace and intelligence, a thoughtful period piece that does a terrific job of bringing the nineteenth century to the screen without glamourizing the grimy realities beneath the plush Victorian settings. It also has a terrific supporting cast and some marvelous dialogue, but there’s no getting around the fact that Esther’s unpredictable motives are rarely legible and, even more unfortunate, Summer Phoenix‘s performance in the role is simply unpalatable. A blank facial expression and terrible accent make it impossible to believe that she manages to captivate audiences with her undercutting and unpleasant voice (especially in the era when stuffy, dramatically inert plays only succeeded with audiences because of actors’ shrill, emotive performances). By the time we get to the conclusion, where her heartbreak drives her to the brink of self-destruction, both actress and written role are a failure as a narrative investment. Ian Holm fares better as her acting mentor, though again it seems odd that she seems to learn nothing from him, and Frances Barber is a standout as her mother.