February 13, 2003

Under The Radar

Print More

Movies do many things well. They can show us the limits of human existence; people pushed to the breaking point by death and disaster and betrayal. They can make a case for society’s outcasts, showing us the humanity in people we would rather pretend didn’t exist. They delight in showing us the transporting power of passion: those who sacrifice all for it, or waste it, or are consumed by it. But movies, to be frank, are crap at depicting real people in relationships. Art is not, though some pretend otherwise, an imitation of life. It can’t be, because life is too messy and too boring to make good art. So how Truly, Madly, Deeply manages to give us real people and real life and remain an excellent movie is beyond me; all I know is that I’m glad it does.

Nina (the sublime Juliet Stevenson) wanders through London in a kind of pained daze. She finds no joy or comfort in her family, friends, or work. She is no victorian heroine wasting nobely away, but a woman literally dying of grief as she withdraws from the world bit by bit. Why should she live, when the other half of her heart does not? When she walks down the street in the middle of the night, and closes the back door she can feel him with her, she tells her therapist. He speaks to her, sometimes in Spanish (Nina works at a language agency as a translator), and his accent is terrible. But it is not enough, and there is a scene early in the film when Stevenson breaks down in the shrink’s office which has to be one of the bravest, realest, most devastating tearful outbursts on film. She cries like a real person: face blotchy, mascara smeared, nose running. There is no question of histrionics or melodrama, or even of artifice and acting. Stevenson simply becomes the essence of grief and her lament no gracefully written speech but an animal cry: “I miss him I miss him I miss him.” And then her 50 minutes are up and she gathers her stuff, blows her nose, and walks out to face the world. Because life goes on. The film is about how Nina manages to move on with it. Her reentry into the world, however, takes place under somewhat odd circumstances.

One day she is playing the piano, one half of a Bach duet she and her cellist used to play together. At first we hear her humming the cello part, then we hear it on the soundtrack and then the camera pans slowly around to reveal Jaime (Alan Rickman) bowing his instrument. Then Nina sees him and her joy is indescribable. He’s back. He’s dead; substantial but cold, but he’s back. Jaime appears only 15 minutes into the film, but both the character and Rickman face a daunting task. Stevenson is so good, her character so well-written, that the audience is already in love with, and fiercely protective of her. So her lover has not to live up to only her post-mortem idealization of him, but ours as well. The script (by Anthony Minghella, who also directed) and Rickman respond to expectations by making Jaime not perfect but a recognizable human being. He’s very funny, very talented and affectionate, but he’s got his sharp edges and flaws and while it is so easy to see why she loved him, why they were a good couple, it is also obvious that they had the fights and the problems any couple has.

Jaime and Nina are manifestly adults, with history and sore points and stories. Rickman and Stevenson imbue them with palpable chemistry, but more importantly give them a sense of familiarity, a sort of lived-in feeling. They are comfortable with each other because they know each other so well. All of their scenes together are emotionally complex and textured. Consider the origin of the title. They’re watching the clouds outside their bedroom window, (“you think they all look like my mother”), and confessing their love: “I love you. “I really love you.” “I really truly, madly, deeply love you,” and so on. It’s a game, one which they’ve obviously played before, where each one adds an adjective without omitting any of the others. There is a playfulness at work here, it’s almost a parody of ‘undying love’ scenes from other movies (Love Story, anyone?) but there is no doubt that every word spoken is meant.

Minghella deepens his world through a wonderful cast of supporting characters , both living and dead, whom it would demean to call “quirky.” There are Jaime’s friends, who come over to Nina’s flat to watch classic videos and occasionally redecorate or play chamber music. This gives rise to one of my favorite lines: “there are a bunch of dead people watching movies in my livingroom!” Nina’s friends and co-workers are no less interesting and more finely drawn. There’s Titus (Christopher Rozycki), her Polish landlord. He has a marvelously unsubtle crush on her, but instead of being played consistently for laughs, there is a scene where he demonstrates the proper way to get rid of the rats plaguing Nina’s flat in which he exhibits a strange grace. Nina’s boss, Sandy (Bill Paterson), who speaks just about every language known to man — except his ex-wife’s, mixes efficient capability with a genuine brotherly concern.

This understated film has set itself an almost impossible task by depicting a ghost story in the most matter-of-fact manner possible. The ending demands Nina’s rebirth and Jaime’s departure, but how this is to be accomplished is not revealed until the last moments. When it is, there is the rush of happiness that accompanies a story well told and the right ending reached, but there is also the satisfaction of having witnessed a film not sacrifice the courage of its convictions on the alter of a pre-fabricated ending. It is very rare to find a movie with something to say and its own point of view. Truly not only accomplishes that, it also articulates its world view in such a moving, humane way that we cannot help but agree.

Archived article by Erica Stein