An art instructor (Juliette Binoche) and an English teacher (Clive Owen) go head-to-head intellectually over which has more value: words or pictures. Soon enough, the duo begins to fall for one another while ultimately allowing their students to solve the question via a competition.
DUBAI INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Veteran Australian director Fred Schepisi follows up his deliciously caustic – and criminally under-valued – 2011 romp The Eye of the Storm with this likeable but lacking romantic comedy-drama.
likeable but lacking
In one corner stands a washed-up poet turned English professor named Jack Marcus (played with gusto by a suitably disheveled Clive Owen), in the other an ice-cold Italian painter, Dina Delsanto (a well-preserved Juliette Binoche), who’s riddled with rheumatoid arthritis. On her first day at their New England high school, the battle lines between the pair are immediately drawn. Marcus believes a picture speaks a thousand words; Delsanto says an image speaks for itself.
Working off a script from Hollywood scribe-for-hire Gerald Di Pego (Phenomenon, Instinct), Schepisi elicits strong turns from his two leads, who exhibit moments of palpable chemistry (and clearly enjoyed working together). Their sparring is mostly fun: word games are his forte, despite being incapable of creating any fresh work of his own, while she is busily still painting at home (with the aid of some heavy machinery). When they do finally do the deed, it proves to be a sweet, if airbrushed and brief, awakening.
There are some nice touches of reality at play. The paintings on display are Binoche’s own. When Owen’s character loses it, trashing his apartment with a tennis ball, it’s to the sound of David Bowie’s 'The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’ (off the rock legend’s much-vaunted comeback disc, The Next Day), which Owen was apparently very keen to include (Schepisi is more a classical fan). The two leads give it their all. Owen even dresses down in brown corduroy, sporting a messy beard, for the occasion.
The problems lie largely in Di Pego’s script, which strains to convince, and the lack of characterisation of the supporting players. The school’s pupils look on blankly for much of the film’s discourse (Marcus refers to them as 'droids"), while Marcus’s son and the school’s other key staff (save for Bruce Davison, as his sole supporter) feel little more than sketches, hastily tacked on without much thought or care.
Whether you buy the core premise or not – I found the pen vs. paintbrush war between the pair overdone and rather tiresome – it certainly has echoes of Shepisi’s superior back pages (like Six Degrees of Separation) and that of his equally esteemed countrymen Peter Weir (Dead Poets Society). Alas, there is little of either’s polish evident in the material here.
Schepisi – whose 1976 New Wave picture The Devil’s Playground has been revisited by Foxtel for a TV-based sequel – has understandably got behind his latest picture (which premiered at Toronto, prior to its glitzy showing at Dubai), citing the intellectual stimulus of the subject matter as a key factor in jumping on board. (He’s credited as a producer, and fought long and hard to get the thing financed.) Times have radically shifted since the theological questioning of his aforementioned, semi-autobiographical 1970s classic was made, though, both in the populace’s outlook and in storytelling methods in general. This is no Eye of the Storm, either, rather an ill-fitting, occasionally awkward yarn that crackles at times (thanks to its charming leads), but struggles to fire.