“Me Without You” covers twenty-eight years in the stormy friendship of Londoners Marina (Anna Friel) and Holly (Michelle Williams), but it feels like at least a full century. This is one of those movies that uses titles to divide its story into a succession of chronological episodes, beginning in 1973 when the girls are twelve-year old neighbors, then jumping forward to 1978, then 1982, then 1989 and finally 2001. By the time the film has reached 1982, you’ll already be dreading how many more such divisions will occur: by then the picture has turned into something like a pint-sized, pitiable British version of “Beaches,” made all the more curious by the fact that while it tries to mimic the trendy atmosphere of pictures made in Britain during the 1960s and 1970s, its sappy script might have been written by Fannie Hurst. The combination of “swinging London” flash and maudlin thirties sappiness is both bewildering and, in the final analysis, noxious.
As we meet the two protagonists, they’re oh-so-close next-door neighbor kids, but from very different backgrounds. Marina is a beautiful girl from a troubled home: her mother Linda (Trudie Styler) is a heavy-drinking woman clinging to her looks and estranged from her husband Ray (Nicky Henson), a philandering pilot. Holly is a more subdued sort with solidly upper-middle-class Jewish parents, the sweet Max (Allan Corduner) and the brittle Judith (Deborah Findlay); she obviously has a crush on Marina’s older brother Nat (Oliver Milburn), a feeling that, when it’s revealed five years later, evokes Marina’s envy and simmering hostility toward her. As further slices of the relationship are provided, it becomes ever clearer that Marina compulsively sabotages Holly’s romantic attachments; she takes up with the visiting French professor (Kyle MacLachlan) that the more studious Holly is already involved with during their college years, and later weds the doctor whom Holly dates first. She also continues to subvert the possibility of Holly’s getting together with Nat, even though the attraction is obviously mutual. Nonetheless, as a brief coda shows, the friendship persists despite the rough spots.
Presumably “Me Without You” is intended as an ode to female camaraderie, and perhaps the distaff portion of the audience (which will undoubtedly provide the larger number of viewers) will appreciate the picture it draws. But objectively Holly and Marina are a pretty unpleasant pair, an example of twisted co-dependency that seems to bring both of them more misery than joy. They’re well portrayed, however: Williams, from “Dawson’s Creek,” proves adept in feigning a British accent and is occasionally quite moving as well, and Friel, while more shrill, captures Marina’s jealous streak convincingly. But none of the female characters–Holly, Marina, Linda, Judith, or Isabel (Marianne Denicourt), Nat’s actress wife–is pictured as especially well-grounded or rational. Curiously, it’s the males who come off best. In Milburn’s hands Nat is a likable, if sometimes confused, fellow, and Corduner (who was Sullivan in Mike Leigh’s “Topsy-Turvy”) is an oasis of stability as Holly’s dad. Even MacLachlan’s befuddled Lothario and Henson’s errant spouse are more pathetically inept than nasty.
Sandra Goldbacher’s first film was the intriguing period piece “The Governess” (1998), which featured Minnie Driver as an impoverished Jewish woman who takes a position at a remote Scottish estate and enters an unusual relationship with her employer. That picture, which, like this one, emphasized ethnic and feminist issues rather heavy-handedly, was deeply flawed, but it was still far preferable to an arch and obvious bit of soap opera twaddle like this.