Scottish actress Shirley Henderson's voice is so odd '- gravelly and little girl sing-songy all at once '- that it takes a few minutes to notice that she's speaking in iambic pentameter. She's the cleaning lady in an immaculate, all-white apartment owned by a British couple, and she starts the action in this stagelike film by whispering about the emotional dirt she sees hidden just under the surface.
When that couple steps in, they are speaking in verse too, as are their relatives, dinner party guests, waiters and everyone else. They all do this matter-of-factly, but it's clear that they are trying to do much more than just speak in rhyme. Each character is aspiring to poetry with every syllable. Director Sally Potter (Orlando, The Tango Lesson) has never been known for her paucity of artistic vision, and she doesn't skimp on her dramatic ambitions here.
Aiming for a Shakespearean rumination on, well, just about everything, she tackles class, race, passionless marriages, abortion, the attacks of September 11, the "troubles" in Ireland, communism, American relations with Cuba, the abandonment of the elderly, poverty, young girls' problems with their body image and the longings of middle-aged women. These issues are all so large in themselves that cramming them together for the purpose of a dramatic point makes them seem small and almost petty. Surprisingly for a director known for her feminism, she steers clear of most women's issues here, except for the stunted eroticism of her main character.
That woman, named only "She" and played by Joan Allen, is a microbiologist who studies the process of conception. She was born in Ireland but raised in America and is now living an excruciatingly boring life in England with her politician husband, Anthony (Sam Neill). She has to endure silent dinners at home with her anger simmering hotter than the soup, and dinner parties out with an upper-crust crowd she disdains.
When she meets a Lebanese waiter at one of these functions, she's immediately swept up into an affair that lets loose all her steamy passions and her wish for a little messiness in her life. "He" (Simon Abkarian) used to be a doctor but can't practice in England and is forced to do menial labor. Everything is perfect in their affair until they both start to feel like they've abandoned too much to be with each other. He heads back to Lebanon and she flees to Ireland to see an ailing aunt.
Potter's affectations of language are engaging at first for their novelty. But where verse like this is supposed to seep in and stop being so noticeable eventually, her attempt simply wears thin. The plot also disintegrates as soon as He and She are apart.
Despite all of this, however, Joan Allen is so captivating to watch that it saves the film. It doesn't matter what she's saying. In fact, she's best when she's not saying anything and her character is just languishing in an agony of her own making, although it's worth noting that she's the only one who gets lost in the verse and manages to make it sound like her own words. Her look is what's best. At times she has a regal air and then she droops and looks defeated. Her explosions of anger at her husband and later at her lover are exciting and full of tiny details that most actors forget about. She doesn't just lash out and emote all over the screen. She comes to a boil slowly so the words shoot out of her as her face reddens and her neck tenses.
If only Potter could have directed a one-woman showcase, she might have had something great.
iVillage Mood Meter: Will make you want to rent all of Joan Allen's films
Stars: Joan Allen, Sam Neill
Director/screenwriter: Sally Potter
Producer: Andrew Fierberg, Christopher Sheppard
Release date: June 24, 2005 in New York, later nationwide
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics