July 21, 2011

Cracks

Reviewer: James Van Maanen
Rating (out of five): * * *

A coming-of-age (but not coming-out) movie that takes us back to a British all-girls school during the 1930s -- complete with requisite lesbianism, nude scenes, and a backward glance at the young ladies, fashions and automobiles of pre-WWII-- Cracks, the first full-length film from Jordan Scott (daughter of Ridley) is a ripe piece of cinema that is, fortunately, still a short distance from going bad. You can bite into its succulent fruit and enjoy the sweet taste, while realizing that, by tomorrow, it will have passed optimum status. But that's tomorrow. Why carp when we still have today?

Boasting a very good (if somewhat underused) cast and filmed on a terrific old country estate, the story -- adapted from Sheila Kohler's novel by Ben Court, Carolyn Ip and Jordan Scott -- has been moved from its original setting in South Africa to the British countryside with little loss of veracity or interest that I could imagine. From the first scene, we're tossed into the life and character of two of the film's three protagonists, the seemingly sophisticated and definitely alluring teacher Miss G (an often very good Eva Green) and her favorite student, to whom she's intent on offering life with a capital L. Juno Temple plays the student, and this is her third excellent job this year: Kaboom, Glorious 39, and Cracks. While I have not seen Temple on stage, film-wise she might have a career ahead of her, the likes of which Dame Judi Dench is now completing.    

The third major protagonist (all the girls are, but unfortunately the remainder of them we learn too little about) is a young lady of Spain -- minor royalty, no less -- named Fiamma (played by the very good María Valverde). Fiamma has come to the school due to some scandal or other involving her parents. She's not happy to be there, nor are the girls initially happy to have her.

One of the film's strength's is that the emotional terrain keeps changing: The girls, as well as Miss G, are buffeted about by their own needs and desires, and as these slowly grow out of control, they begin buffeting each other. This is particularly true of our Miss G, who begins the tale as the strong sun around which her student satellites circle. By the film's finale, orbits and planets have moved rather drastically.

Jordan Scott has a good eye for visuals and for keeping the precarious balance changing. And while people do some pretty awful things before the curtain comes down, there really are no villains -- not even Ms G, who comes closest, but by the end, retains a vestige of drained humanity.

Though you might blame the strictures of British society of the day for tamping down feelings and freedom, the filmmaker fortunately does not hammer this home. The love that dare not speak its name doesn't, but the damage is done nonetheless. And the least guilty party is sacrificed on the altar that rewards conventionality while allowing no outlet for one's deeper needs.

The film is certainly not all gloom and doom. Before the balance tips into tragedy, there are some interesting scenes of the gymnastic and diving classes offered by Miss G -- including a nice midnight, topless swim. And this popular teacher is prone to give her students advice such as, "The most important thing in life is... desire!"

In the practically all-female cast, Sinéad Cusak plays the semi-stern headmistress, while Imogen Poots (Solitary Man, Centurion), as another of the students, has little to do, probably because the film's 104-minute running time did not allow her character to blossom. The other young ladies do fine by their limited roles. But it is Eva Green  and her role that command the movie, and this is both a blessing -- for the actress is a stunning-looking woman who carries herself with both strength and vulnerability, depending on the occasion -- and finally a curse because neither the screenplay, direction nor the actress are quite up to snuff with what is needed here. We get the point, and we feel badly for all concerned, but we are not finally moved to terror, tears or empathy in the way that real tragedy manages. This finally makes the movie an enjoyable, titillating entertainment that ought to have struck deeper and offered more.



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Posted by maian at July 21, 2011 9:36 PM
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