Director: Stephen Gyllenhaal
Writer: Peter Prince, based on the novel by Graham Swift
Stars: Jeremy Irons, Ethan Hawke, Sinéad Cusack, Cara Buono, Lena Headey
The Story: One day in 1973, a high school history teacher in Pittsburgh gets tired of lecturing about the French Revolution and instead starts telling his students about his own coming of age amongst the eel fishermen of the English Fens: a painful tale of sex, murder, and buried secrets.
How it Came to be Underrated: Gyllenhaal’s own kids (young Maggie shows up here for two seconds) have gone on to become movie stars, but he’s been content to work in TV for most of his career. He’s become a star director there, but this was a rare venture into the feature world. His work might be a little modest for the big screen, but he does a great job with the period detail and the emotional pain of the subject matter.
Why It’s Great:
- This was a great debut for 19-year-old Lena Headey but she disappeared into minor roles for many years thereafter. The one good thing that came out of 300 was that it finally got her some more attention, and she’s been getting better roles ever since.
- The flashbacks that overwhelm Irons are elegantly constructed, compressing a sprawling family saga into a few powerful scenes. The trouble all begins with a swimming contest, and it shows that a contest is a great way to begin a story: It defines everybody very quickly-- It gives each character a chance to show what they want and ranks them according as to how badly they want it.
- David Morrissey is great as the older brother in the flashbacks. There had been a plague of movies at the time about mentally challenged people that treated them like sagacious advocates of a simpler existence, rather than complex adults who, like everybody, want more things out of life than they’re ever likely to get, which is nothing to be ashamed of. Understanding that is the beginning of real respect.
- Gyllenhaal was no doubt influenced by British TV miniseries “The Singing Detective” which told a similar story about a haunted Englishman interacting with his own past, but used its much longer running-time to delve deeper than a feature can.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Hawke and Irons were both churning out a lot of solid arthouse movies at the time, most of which are long forgotten today. Hawke got some war wounds of his own in A Midnight Clear and Irons was even more irresponsible in Damage.
How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD and available to watch instantly on Netflix, but it’s slightly “panned and scanned” which is not very fair to Robert Elswit’s beautiful cinematography. That's probably all we're going to get though, because it's a pretty forgotten movie.