All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.


Back in 1963 Harold Pinter and Joseph Losey collaborated on a
dark, haunting picture called “The Servant,” in which a sinister
butler (Dirk Bogarde) gradually grew dominant over his callow
master (James Fox). The film was basically a bitter commentary
on British class distinctions, but it also played beautifully
as a brooding portrait of festering decadence.

In “Cotton Mary” Ismail Merchant, best-known as the producing
half of the Merchant-Ivory team, has undertaken to direct a
similar but much less successful script by novice screenwriter
Alexandra Viets. Set in the newly-independent India of the
1950s, it’s about a Anglo-Indian nurse named Mary (Madhur
Jaffrey) who makes herself indispensable to a well-to-do
British couple whose female half, the rather somnolent Lily
(Greta Scacchi) is unable to provide breast milk for her
newborn infant; Mary has the child secretly fed by her
crippled sister Blossom (Neena Gupta), meanwhile maneuvering
to develop her shady power in the household.

It’s easy to see what Viets and Merchant were after here: the
servant-master relationship is supposed to be a metaphor for
the horrible results of imperialism, just as a similar
relationship in the Pinter-Losey film was intended to make a
point about the effects of class divisions. But despite a
good deal of authenticity in terms of locale and period
atmosphere, the outcome comes across as halting and obvious.
There are several reasons for this. One is the writing, which
is, curiously enough, both overly schematic and oddly opaque.
It’s clear that Mary’s psychological difficulties arise from
fantasies about being essentially English–the result of her
mixed parentage–and from an obsessive drive to win recognition
as thereby superior. It’s equally apparent that beneath Mary’s
obsequiousness to the British lies a simmering hatred of that
“foreign” part of her nature. The family she serves, on the
other hand, are meant to suffer for the pain their country has
inflicted (and, it’s argued, continues to inflict) on a
colonial people.

But as they’re written none of the characters convince as the
archetypal figures they’re intended to be. Mary is portrayed
as so odd and conniving a figure from the very beginning that
it’s practically impossible to believe that anyone would have
entrusted her with a nanny’s role–not even the Macintoshes,
who, as played by Scacchi and James Wilby, are such complete
dunderheads that they go beyond the caricatures of the British
abroad penned by the likes of Noel Coward. The means whereby
Mary finds entrance into the household, moreover–the feeding
of the baby by Blossom, with the ultimately horrified reaction
to it–suggests a theme of “blood poisoning” which is both
unsettling and unsavory.

It’s probable that not even the most subtle and shaded
reading of the title role could have saved the picture, but
Jaffrey’s bug-eyed histrionics surely doom whatever chance it
might have had. Jaffrey seems to be playing to the gallery
here, overdoing things from the start and, amazingly enough,
becoming increasingly agitated and overwrought as the plot
proceeds; the effect is to rob the character of whatever
sympathy she might have possessed, transforming her into far
more of a monster than she should have been. Of course, a
more experienced director might have helped Jaffrey to tone
down the portrayal, but Merchant, whose previous feature work
has been limited to “In Custody” and “The Proprietor,” two
little-known films which got only sporadic release, seems more
interested in creating an evocative mood than in establishing
a proper pace or eliciting the best from his actors. It’s
hardly surprising that this film runs over two hours–far too
long for its threadbare plot and lackadaisical manner to bear.

“Cotton Mary” isn’t without interest; it has the same kind
of morbid fascination that “The Nanny,” that lurid potboiler
of Bette Davis’ later years, possessed. But as a serious
reflection on the impact of colonial exploitation on both its
perpetrators and its victims, it pretty much misses the boat.


Arrested adolescence is the subject of Stephen Frears’ new film,
the location of which has been shifted (rather incongruously,
given the director’s British background) from the London of
Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel to Chicago, the hometown of star
John Cusack. “High Fidelity” centers on the romantic
misadventures of Rob Gordon (Cusack), the flaky proprietor of
a used-record store in the Windy City, who’s in a state over
his breakup with girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle). In a barrage
of “Alfie”-like monologues delivered directly to the audience,
Rob confides to us details regarding his past, and uniformly
disastrous, relationships. These outbursts are interspersed
with scenes of Rob desperately trying to patch things up with
Laura while trying to keep his business running, casting a
roving eye at other gals, dealing with Laura’s mouthy pal Liz
(sister Joan), producing a demo record of a couple of local
punks with surprising talent, and even–as an device to exorcise
the lingering effects of earlier failed romances–tracking down
former girlfriends to resolve his continuing obsession with
why they dumped him.

Played by Cusack with the demented intensity he regularly
brings to such scruffy, single-minded types, Rob is a reasonably
intriguing guy at first; but as the mechanics of the plot
grind on, our interest in his plight decreases. It doesn’t
take us long to figure out that the poor fellow’s problems lie
in his complete absorption with the interests of his nerdy
youth (in his case pop music, which he cherishes, catalogues
and discourses upon with the zaniness characteristic of a true
zealot, but the object of his obsession could just as well be
baseball cards or Star Wars paraphernalia)–and that his
compulsive behavior concerning vinyl is obstructing his ability
to establish a permanent bond with a woman. Thus Rob’s
difficulties all boil down to a problem with the Big C–
Commitment. That’s an awfully conventional message to be put
out by a movie that’s trying so hard to be as hip and and cool
as this one is.

So the main portion of “High Fidelity” delivers considerably
less than it promises. The relationship between Rob and Laura
(anyone for the old “Dick Van Dyke Show”?) never becomes as
engaging as it ought to be, and whether or not they’ll
reconnect isn’t much of an issue. Nor do Rob’s romantic
reminiscences offer a lot of interest: though his past
amours are played by the likes of Catherine Zeta-Jones,
Lili Taylor and Joelle Carter, the flashbacks involving those
characters and the contemporary scenes involving their
reacquaintance offer surprisingly few laughs. As a result the
center of the picture is rather flaccid and tepid. We’re
left listening to Rob delivering far too many rants about his
misfortunes and watching him sulking about rain-soaked streets
much too frequently. (Indeed, Cusack spends so much time
dripping with rainwater that one begins to worry about the
deleterious effect it might have on his health.)

Happily, there are substantial compensations too, not only
in terms of the script’s often-amusing musical allusions and a
clever soundtrack but also via some very canny casting of the
supporting roles. Jack Black and Todd Louiso prove adept
scene-stealers as the two even-more-obsessed clerks at Rob’s
store; the former’s manic energy and the latter’s dyspeptic
mien both bring ample laughs, even if they’re all-too-obvious
Characters. And Tim Robbins does a cameo as Ian, the smarmy
stress-management consultant whom Laura turns to after leaving
Rob, that’s right on the money (and allows for a hilarious
fantasy sequence in which our hero imagines how he might deal
with the slimy Lothario.)

But in the final analysis, despite the efforts of the cast and
its capable director, “High Fidelity” leaves much less of an
impression than does another current tale of arrested
adolescence–Curtis Hanson’s “Wonder Boys,” a far more complex
and textured (as well as funnier) tale of an man making
long-delayed decisions about his life. That picture digs much
deeper (just as Michael Douglas’ performance outshines Cusack’s),
and leaves this new effort in the dust. Ultimately watching
“High Fidelity” is like listening to a decent, though not
exceptional, old LP: if you’re willing to put up with all the
pops, scratches and skips along the way, it’s reasonably
enjoyable. But by comparison “Wonder Boys” is one of those
classic discs you’ll still be carefully removing from its
cardboard cover years from now and savoring anew with each