As Giles De'Ath (he pronounces it "day-ahth"), the British aesthete/novelist of "Love and Death on Long Island," John Hurt suggests a reversal of the famous opening line of L.P. Hartley's "The Go-Between": "The past is a foreign country: They do things differently there." For Giles, it's the present that's unfamiliar terrain. Asked by an interviewer whether the 20th century plays any part in his work, he barely comprehends the question. When pressed -- does he, for instance, use a word processor? -- Giles says, rather testily, "I'm a writer. I write. I don't process words."
Giles keeps pretty much to his well-appointed Hampstead home. Locked out of this sanctuary one afternoon, Giles decides to relax his disdain for what he calls "the cin-em-ma" and take in an E.M. Forster adaptation. But, multiplexes being one of those modern things that have passed him by, he wanders instead into the theater showing an American "Porky's"-style inanity called "Hotpants College II." "This isn't E.M. Forster," he exclaims with dawning indignation, when there appears to him, on the screen, a vision. In the role of a humiliated pizza-parlor waiter he sees a prone, ketchup-spattered youth who reminds him of Henry Wallis' portrait of the dead Chatterton. This fellow, though, is nowhere near as lofty. He's an American teen idol named Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestly), and Giles is immediately smitten. Soon he's surreptitiously poring over teen magazines for any scrap of information about his beloved and cutting out Ronnie's pictures for a scrapbook he labels "Bostockiana." He even permits a dread television and VCR into his study so he can watch Ronnie's films over and over.
With "Love and Death on Long Island," writer-director Richard Kwietniowski makes a very pleasing feature debut, adapted from the short novel by the British film critic and novelist Gilbert Adair. Adair's book, a semi-satirical gloss on "Death in Venice," is both a reimagining of and a rebuke to Thomas Mann's novella. "Death in Venice," the story of the revered writer Aschenbach who, on holiday in Venice, becomes enamored of a beautiful young boy named Tadzio, is intermittently exquisite and poignant. It's also faintly ridiculous. Mann was writing about a man so totally consumed by culture that his physical impulses are foreign to him. The trouble with "Death in Venice" is that it feels like it was written by Aschenbach. It's lofty and refined and it lasts an eternity.
Adair's novel starts in language that has a precise, misanthropic control, the voice of a man who's closeted in every way -- emotionally, sexually, socially. As Giles' infatuation with Ronnie escalates, the language becomes flowing, nearly rapturous in passages, as close as a man like Giles can ever get to sensuality. That doesn't mean Adair is falsely optimistic. He realizes that a modern day Ashebach, to woo his Tadzio, would need to immerse himself in pop culture, the culture of youth. Giles cuts himself off from the only world he has ever known and, in the book's climax, uses his writer's skills to ensure the same fate for his unattainable Ronnie.
Casting Hurt as Giles was an inspired stroke. This most masochistic of
actors -- he makes Dirk Bogarde seem as breezy as Cary Grant -- uses what
he calls his "spaniel's face" to sly comic effect. Sitting alone in his
study, happily scarfing a pizza (Ronnie's favorite food) and laughing at
one of Ronnie's pictures, scarcely daring to believe how much he's enjoying
himself, Giles is silly and touching. He'd fit right in among all the
14-year-old girls at "Titanic" sighing over Leonardo. (Kwietniowski doesn't
compound Giles' snobbishness. Instead of being condescending, the excerpts
we see from Ronnie's teen comedies have a lively, parodic accuracy.) Taking
a stroll to privately dispose of his fan magazines, Hurt looks as absurd as
a figure out of Magritte. In one scene, Giles is watching a movie in which
Ronnie dies. A stricken look comes over him, and as he inclines his face to
the television screen as if to bestow a kiss on the visage of his dead
love, the video image suddenly cuts to another actor and Giles starts back.
It's a small moment, but a lovely one, a swift comment on how, in a movie,
everything rushes by, giving us scant time to hold on to what we cherish
Hurt has some of his best moments playing the movie's fish-out-of-water
jokes: Giles announcing to an appliance-store clerk that he's interested in
purchasing a video recorder, all the while intently studying microwave
ovens. And a few scenes later, a delivery boy brings the VCR and finds out
Giles hasn't realized you need a television to go with it.
In the second half of the movie, Giles flies to America to seek out Ronnie
on Long Island, and Hurt becomes a scheming Humbert venturing forth into
the New World. Kwietniowski has expanded this section from the final pages
of Adair's novel, and in the process he's come up with a small, amusing role
for the incomparable Maury Chaykin as the owner of a local diner ("Chez
d'Irv"), and a better one for Fiona Loewi as Ronnie's fashion-model fiancée,
Audrey. It's Audrey whom Giles uses to connive his way to Ronnie,
engineering a "chance" meeting with her, then convincing her that he's
interested in using his writing talents to lift Ronnie out of teen movies.
For Giles, Audrey is a steppingstone. It's a measure of Kwietniowski's
decency that he doesn't treat her that way. Loewi negotiates a tricky
transition from Audrey's delight that a cultured person like Giles believes
in her fiancé's talent to wounded anger when she discovers the real
nature of Giles' interest, and she's very affecting.
It's too bad Kwietniowski hasn't done something similar for Priestly
as Ronnie. As Ronnie becomes a presence who exists outside of Giles'
consciousness, what works in the first-person narrative of Adair's novel
doesn't serve as well in the movie. Priestly is fine, but there's not
enough for him to do except parody his own teen-idol status. That he even
took the role speaks well for him, but his best scene -- when he realizes
how Giles feels about him and tries to respond kindly to something he's
unprepared for -- suggests there's more to him than his willingness to be
Kwietniowski has done the best job possible of dramatizing such a dense,
difficult, compacted book. (There is, for example, no dialogue in the
novel). The problem is that, in the process, the book's obsessiveness -- as
Giles' elation turns into dark, desperate possessiveness -- seeps out of
the movie like air from a slow-leaking tire. "Love and Death on Long
Island" is amusing and civilized and, finally, rather slack. Kwietniowski
resists Adair's real subject -- the treacherous seductions of pop culture.
He has said, almost optimistically, "I like to think that what happens to
Giles when he goes in to see the wrong film could in theory happen to
anybody in any cinema, anywhere in the world." That's as much a calamity as
it is a happy accident.