Metroland Review

by Scott Renshaw (renshaw AT inconnect DOT com)
May 23rd, 1999

(Lions Gate)
Starring: Christian Bale, Emily Watson, Lee Ross, Elsa Zylberstein. Screenplay: Adrian Hodges, based on the novel by Julian Barnes. Producer: Andrew Bender.
Director: Philip Saville.
MPAA Rating: R (sexual situations, nudity, adult themes, profanity, drug use)
Running Time: 101 minutes.
Reviewed by Scott Renshaw.

    There are few central dramatic conflicts trickier to pull off -- or more potentially annoying -- than a mid-life crisis. The protagonist can easyily become unsympathetic, his introspection little more than self-indulgence. It's rare to find a character with the potential to turn a family man's grass-is-always-greener musings into something compelling, but that's exactly what we find in Chris Lloyd (Christian Bale), the central figure in METROLAND. What a shame that potential isn't remotely realized. METROLAND is a character study with huge chunks of context missing, a surface-level gloss on the clash between youthful idealism and adult responsibility.

    The story opens in 1977, where advertising man Chris is living with his wife Marion (Emily Watson) and infant daughter in the London suburb of Eastwood, a bedroom community dubbed "Metroland" for its dependence on rail commuters. Chris feels a vague discontent with his domestic life, a discontent that becomes more palpable with a visit from his childhood friend Toni (Lee Ross). An itinerant would-be writer still living free and easy, Toni inspires Chris to reflect on the path that led to his own domesticity. In flashback we see Chris first as a rebellious teen in 1963, then as an aspiring photographer living in Paris five years later. There he has a sexual affair with a French woman named Annick (Elsa Zylberstein), an affair that haunts him with thoughts of a life that might have been

    Plenty of things about Chris are intriguing conceptually. As a youth, and again as an adult, he is convinced by Toni that life in this "bourgeois" world is pathetic, a shabby substitute for a life of art and random affairs. What Chris finds hard to accept is that Metroland is actually the world he prefers. He drifts from Annick to Marion because he feels disconnected from the life he craves, then he drifts from Marion because he thinks he has sold out the bold dreams of his youth, even though he was never entirely committed to them. As mid-life crisis material goes, this is pretty unique stuff: a man who strays not so much because he's unhappy with what he has, but because he figures he's _supposed_ to be unhappy.

    Don't make the mistake of assuming director Philip Saville and screenwriter Adrian Hodges will flesh out those ideas. For all its flashing back, METROLAND never portrays Chris interacting with his family as a youth to provide background for his feelings about suburbia. It never spends enough time developing the friendship with Toni that will color Chris' entire life. It never explores Toni's character in any depth, relying on third-party psychoanalysis to explain his motivations. There's a consistent superficiality to METROLAND, a refusal to give the characters a depth that makes plot developments -- like a late revelation regarding Marion -- feel anything but arbitrary and exploitative.
    There's some nice atmosphere to METROLAND, particularly from Mark Knopfler's silky score and an effective period look, but it doesn't come close to making up for the narrative shortcomings. It doesn't help that Seville uses inefficient techniques like cross-cutting with 1977 Chris' pondering face throughout the 1968 flashbacks, or that Christian Bale's performance is most notable for his perpetual petulant pout. It's a film in which the only clarity comes from its most obvious observations. METROLAND is a missed opportunity to give thematic weight to a mid-life crisis, leaving yet another story of a horny husband trying to be 21 again.

    On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 rail passes: 4.

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