Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 51 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 0; Language 3; Sex/Nudity 0.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
But when he came to himself…
In the beginning was the Word…
The word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Jeremiah, what do you see?” And I said, “I see a branch of an almond tree.”
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.
Do not let the tepid response from the critics keep you away from Australian filmmaker Fred Schepisi’s latest film. Directing the literate screenplay by Gerald DiPego, he has gifted lovers of romantic comedies with a film that I think puts most others to shame. During the battle over words verses pictures each side laces their argument with so many good quotes from writers and artists that I am looking forward to seeing it again just to hear them once more. Of course, the debate is somewhat silly, as Jack himself inadvertently acknowledges in his speech at the climax, but the question serves to hold the story together. Beside the debate and growing attraction between the two teachers, there is a subplot that calls to mind the famous quote from the Parable of the Prodigal Son, only this time it is not a son but the father who is the prodigal.
Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) is an acerbic English teacher at Croyden, an elite New England prep school. Once a promising young writer and poet in love with words, he has retained his love, no, his obsession with words, but not his promise. Whether his current drinking problem was the cause or the result of his failure to continue his writing, we are not told—only that both his failure and his drinking are endangering his teaching position. And other than his colleague and good friend Walt (Bruce Davison), there will be no other teacher to go to bat for him when the school board meets to decide on his fate. He is constantly irritating them with his attempts to ensnare them in word games. Due to this and his frequent put downs they regard him as thorn in the flesh or gadfly, though none of them would think of him as the most famous gadfly of all, Socrates. In the classroom he is also harsh on his students, condemning their lack of interest in words and literature and what he regards as over-involvement in social media. And yet his interest in them is apparently appreciated because in their frequent encounters on the campus the youth enjoy interacting with him—he even plays soccer with some of them.
When new teacher Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche), an acclaimed Italian-born abstract painter, arrives to teach the art honors class, Jack is drawn to her. Using a cane because her body is wrackedwith rheumatoid arthritis, she barely responds to him, thus earning what he subsequently learns is her nickname, the Ice Lady. She is brutally frank with her students, telling them that she will not be the teacher that they came back to visit in future years with a Hallmark card. Her criticism of their art seems savage at first, but she tells them she wants them not to be satisfied with their current achievement, but to move on to the best of which they are capable. She especially shows this in her developing relationship with one student who shows talent, Emily (Valerie Tian), becoming her mentor and, when bullied by a male fellow student, protector.
When Jack hears that Dina has told her students that words are “lies” and “traps,” he announces that a competition will be held to see which are more important, words or pictures. As the two banter back and forth the students also become involved, Dina in assigning her students to come up with a piece of art showing the value of graphic art, and Jack saying that he will write a 1000 word-piece to go along with the art to be published in the school magazine that he has founded.
It seems that the script intends to show a parallel between the two struggles that consume the teachers and their theses concerning literature and art. Jack cannot get through a teaching day without resorting to alcohol. He even eats his lunch by himself in his car because that is where he stashes a thermos of liquor out of sight of faculty and students. His drinking is apparently what has alienated his grown son from him, because though they talk on the phone, the son, who has developed a keen interest in a girl, keeps avoiding his father’s request that they get together so he can meet her.
Dina has moved from New York where she had achieved great success so she can be close to her sister who now spends considerable time helping her get dressed and cope with a day’s demands. Her fingers can no longer hold a small paintbrush or button her blouses without a special device. She now uses larger paintbrushes and even a mop for her large works. Part of the film’s fascination is seeing her lying on her stomach on a stool while swirling paint upon a large canvass on the floor. In order to hold the brush or mop the instrument is connected by a heavy cord to a pulley and a counterweight. Thus, unlike Jack at this stage, she fights back against her affliction, her abstract painting showing her emotions and struggle. (I was intrigued that all the art that we see was painted by Ms. Binoche!)
Jack manages to melt the Ice Lady so that they come together intimately one night, but his demon turns him into his worst enemy, destroying the trust she had reluctantly and warily placed in him. His proclivity to defeat himself is also seen in his attempt to get back into the good graces of the town’s only upscale restaurant The Hunt Club, from which he has been banned because of his heavy drinking. How he escapes his demon and restores his relationship with lover and son, as well as resolving the debate over words versus pictures makes for a memorable film. Not a perfect one, as the other critics will readily tell you, but still one that, unlike with so many other films that I have seen this spring, I eagerly want to see again. Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche are very convincing in their portrayal of two strong people in their early fifties discovering the possibility of love while struggling against powers that cripple and destroy them.The review with a set of discussion questions is in the June issue of Visual Parables. Go to the Visual Parables Store to subscribe–and gain access to a whole library of articles, lectionary movie materials, and reviews not found in the Film Review sections.