The 28th edition of the Palm Springs International Film Festival kicked off with a world première and a vastly refurbished venue. Both yielded mixed results.
In the Richard Center for the Arts at Palms Springs High School the most obvious and welcome changes are physical with a new-look interior (walls, ceiling, flooring, seats) that, hopefully were under the careful watch of superior acousticians. The global flag stanchions, previously flanking both sides of the house are long gone. But being described by the festival as “state of the art theatre” will have to await a few more screenings before informed judgement can be made. Suffice it to say that far too many lines of the opening night film could only be classified “inaudible”—whether that was the film itself or the theatre’s sound system and aforementioned acoustics remain to be heard. Of course, the two interruptions by thoughtless cellphone owners were clear as a bell.
Following mercifully short welcomes by board chair Harold Matzner (needing a tad more umph to carry the room) and glittering Palm Springs mayor, Robert Moon (a master of the microphone and civic pride), newly minted artistic director, Michael Lerman used his time on the podium to rightfully thank all of the programmers, staff and volunteers, but asking for applause rather than building his remarks to draw some. Naturally, no mention was made of former programming wizard then interim executive director, Helen du Toit’s lawsuit, based on a squabble over compensation. Perhaps a documentary is in the works as this drama unfolds.
The director of the evening’s offering, Ritesh Bartra said the least (“Thank you for having our little movie” was a model of modesty), knowing full well that his production would hold the floor for the next 108 minutes.
And thus the journey of retired-but-still-working (a wee camera shop metaphorically featuring past-generation equipment prior to the digital age) Tony Webster (rendered with fine timing and droll delivery by Jim Broadbent): more or less a life history from adolescent education to desperately hoping that “everything will be OK” as his life begins to wind down.
Curiously similar to Sweden’s foreign film entry, A Man Called Ove (cross-reference below), the narrative begins with great promise only to tie its own noose (perhaps more appropriately razor blades meant for wrist slitting) when the threads of credibility began to unravel, making the mantra “something happened” seem more contrived than believable. Sure, it’s only a movie, but today’s audiences surrounded by so-called reality shows and social media, one can only hope, would like to have a higher-level storyline when they try to lose all of the cross-platform chatter and escape into the cinema.
Three letters are pivotal plot points. The first is to Tony: an estate solicitor’s, informing him that the late Sarah Ford (capriciously played by Emily Mortimer) has bequeathed him some cash and an attached document. However, said document isn’t attached as Veronica Ford (Freya Mavor is a fine tease as the younger; Charlotte Rampling, appropriately stoic as the elder) refuses to release what is reported to be a diary from mutual friend, Adrian Finn (Joe Alwyn). The second was written by a much younger Tony (boyishly then spitefully portrayed by Billy Howle) in response to the maddening note from best friend Adrian that he and Veronica had become an item not long after Veronica dumped Tony. The spiteful reply by Tony to this news may well have contributed to Adrian’s suicide.
That’s a remarkable mix of events to keep the then-and-now scenes flowing, yet credibility is strained on a number of fronts. For dramatic effect, Tony both reading and writing his correspondence, is “interrupted” by side plots: notably his lesbian daughter’s (Michelle Dockery) impending birth. With such short, life-changing texts to read it’s incredible that Tony wouldn’t dive right in. Also swirling around the action is Tony’s ex-wife (and QC!) Margaret (a well-nuanced take on the role from Harriett Walter). However, the stalking sequences in London (Tony/Veronica) don’t pass muster in the test tube of cred.
Overall, it isn’t clear enough whether the production is primarily madcap comedy (the three guys on social media bit is a hoot) or serious drama (successful suicides are never laughing matters; in Ove’s case, above, they were carefully established as comic relief). The proof of this conundrum came from many in the capacity crowd who had a very good chuckle during some of the darkest moments.
In the end, “something happened,” but not quite in the sense that the artistic trust (along with Batra, Julian Barnes wrote the novel; Nick Payne did the adaptation and screenplay) intended. JWR