Beyond Dodie’s Dalmatians: Period Romance Sans Pups

Tim Fywell’s I Capture the Castle, from a screenplay by Heidi Thomas, is adapted from Dodie Smith’s 1948 novel of the same name. Most famous for penning the children’s classic The Hundred and One Dalmatians-later adapted into a big money spinner by Walt Disney Pictures-Smith (1896-1990) was a well-regarded British playwright of the 1930′s. I Capture the Castle, her first novel, is an almost Brontëan tale of a young girl’s first stirrings of love.

In the novel’s transition to the big screen, Smith’s dramatic plot savvy gives the film version something of a head start. The story is simplistic enough to keep a movie audience wondering what will happen next for close to two hours. If the production weren’t ideally cast, acted and directed, it could be dismissed as just another adolescent romance with highfalutin literary pretensions about writers and artists in the unusually picturesque settings (crumbling castles and towers, etc.) of rural England in the 1930′s.

Fortunately, the radiant Romola Garai plays the 17-year-old Cassandra, who matures before our eyes with intelligence, warmth, passion and humor. A girl on the cusp of womanhood, Cassandra assists her older sister, Rose (Rose Byrne), to win the hand of Simon (Henry Thomas), a wealthy American, only to discover that she has fallen in love with him herself.

Yet this is not the full extent of Cassandra’s problems. Her family is bedeviled by a father who, after writing a famous first novel, hasn’t written a single word for 12 years. In the interim, he’s been briefly imprisoned for lunging with a knife at his understandably impatient first wife (Helena Little), Cassandra’s mother, who subsequently dies after a brief illness. The ever-hapless father then marries a much younger woman, Topaz (Tara Fitzgerald), who has artistic ambitions of her own as a painter, coupled with an abortive desire to serve as “inspiration” for her hopelessly blocked writer-husband.

Then, as if in a fairy tale, two young American knights without armor-the aforementioned Simon and his brother, Neil (Marc Blucas)-arrive in England to claim their late father’s ancestral estate, and find themselves face-to-face with the romantically and sexually awakening Rose and Cassandra. Simon is drawn to the family not only by the two ravishing sisters, but by his admiration for the literary gifts displayed by their father in his first novel. The elective (if sub-Jamesian) affinities between the two eligible American heirs and the two yearningly impoverished British sisters criss-cross with bewildering rapidity, while in the background, their elders are engaged in equally volatile sexual intrigues.

Happily, Cassandra keeps a journal of her experiences and her heart-wrenching feelings about them, which she reveals to us at crucial intervals to keep the dangerously tangled narrative in clear emotional focus. Ms. Garai is superb as Cassandra, who holds the picture together with the bonds of love, loyalty, affection and a grown-up moral discernment. Forget the summer blockbusters: I Capture the Castle is an engaging and enchanting entertainment. Don’t miss it.

Housekeeping Secrets

And while we’re on the subject of pleasant alternatives to the mindless mainstream movies flooding the summer screens, Claude Berri’s The Housekeeper (Une Femme de Ménage), from his own screenplay, based on the novel by Christian Oster, gives the age-old theme of “The September Song” a few new Gallic twists, beautifully executed by two immense talents: Jean-Pierre Bacri as Jacques, a middle-aged sound technician with a taste for classical music and serious jazz, and Emilie Dequenne as Laura, the young housekeeper he hires after his wife runs off with another man.

At first, Jacques and Laura engage in a display of extreme behavioral contrasts that seems to be building toward a banal seduction from one direction or the other. Laura is pretty enough and sexy enough to suggest that liberties can be taken with her virtue, but she is also distractingly indifferent to certain aspects of her appearance, and this leads Jacques to make suggestions that implicate him humorously as a bit of a fastidious control freak. But Laura never takes offense at his critical observations, and as she gets to know him better, she confides in him about her difficult financial situation as a result of her break-up with her boyfriend, and asks if he’d mind her staying in his apartment until she can find an affordable place of her own. Even after Jacques has reluctantly allowed Laura to stay in his home, he keeps a proper distance from his housekeeper, until she makes the first move to sleep with him.

Yet little else changes in their relationship: Jacques continues to regard Laura as an employee, albeit one who needs temporary assistance in finding other clients for her housekeeping services. Laura clearly wants more of a commitment from Jacques, but she never makes any demands. Nor does she bargain with him using her youth and her body; she simply wants to stay with her employer in any capacity.

Meanwhile, Jacques has been receiving calls from someone who hangs up when he answers. He suspects that it’s his estranged wife, Constance (played by director Catherine Breillat in a memorably intense cameo scene), who appears one day at her abandoned husband’s doorstep to plead with him to take her back. Earlier, we have seen Jacques commiserating with Claire (Brigitte Catillon), a longtime woman friend whose own husband has broken her heart by abandoning her.

Alarmed by his wife’s reappearance, Jacques impulsively decides to leave town on an impromptu vacation from his job to see his old friend Ralph (Jacques Frantz), who lives in Brittany with a flock of chickens and roosters that he paints for a living. Laura begs Jacques to take him with her-and when he reluctantly agrees, their relationship begins to change decisively, to the point where he is forced to confront certain decisions he has always avoided, and which it may now be too late for him to make. Along the way, he discovers that his friend Ralph betrayed him with his wife Constance, and that Laura has found a young lover on the beach, the son of a divorced woman named Helene (Axelle Abbadie), who mistakes Laura for Jacques’ daughter. Meanwhile, Jacques sits pensively on the beach and ponders what moves are still available to him, as the recurring pain of betrayal and desertion afflicts him and everyone around him in a pattern of cosmic drift. And yet the proceedings are often very funny.

Sex and Religion

Eitan Gorlin’s The Holy Land is based on his own novella, Mike’s Place: A Jerusalem Diary, written in 1997. The film, with its themes of infatuation and renunciation, is loosely patterned on Casablanca (1942), but without the star power and Warner Brothers production values: Mike’s Place in Jerusalem hardly resembles the glamour of Rick’s Place, the famous Casablanca bar created in a Hollywood back lot. There are, of course, many other differences as well.

Mr. Gorlin grew up in an American Orthodox Jewish home and first visited Israel at age 17, a year before the outbreak of the first Palestinian uprising. During his year in Israel, he attended a Zionist yeshiva and became an advocate of Zionist expansionism, before returning to America to complete his college education. But by the time he returned to Israel in the early 90′s, he had abandoned his religious and nationalistic beliefs. He found work as a bartender in Jerusalem and spent a year in the Israel Defense Force.

The story Mr. Gorlin tells in The Holy Land is not so much his story as the invented story of Mendy (Oren Rehaney), a sexually curious and distracted rabbinical student in a Tel Aviv yeshiva. Mendy is told by his exasperated rabbi to have sex with a prostitute to release his tensions so that he can return his attentions on the Talmud. The young student goes out to a Tel Aviv strip club and brothel, where he meets and becomes infatuated with Sasha, a 19-year-old prostitute from Russia who takes a liking to the shy, inexperienced Mendy and gradually thinks of him as the possible redeemer of her sordid existence.

Mendy is also befriended by Mike, one of Sasha’s regular customers, who now owns and operates a bar in Jerusalem with a strange mix of Israeli and Palestinian patrons, each with his own personal agenda that’s more often than not also illegal. Mike shrewdly involves Mendy in a smuggling operation on the supposition that Israeli border guards are less likely to suspect a Hasidic Jew of wrongdoing. In the end, Mendy and Sasha find that their dreams of a new life in America cannot transcend the obstacles of an ancient and, at times, repressive religion. But Mr. Gorlin’s The Holy Land has given us a decidedly unorthodox vision of Israel.

The Price of Success

Erez Laufer’s Mike Brant: Laisse-Moi T’Aimer was one of the striking revelations of the recently concluded Israeli Film Festival, but as the title of the film suggests, the titular protagonist of this nonfiction film had his greatest success in France. The singer known as Mike Brant (1947-1975) was in fact born Moshé Brand, who as a young boy in Haifa idolized Elvis Presley and took up singing as a life vocation. Among his many talents was a gift for musical mimicry, which he put to use imitating his favorite African-American blues performers. In fact, the film ends with Brant’s rendition of George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” complete with authentic African-American vocal mannerisms. Compared to his onstage charisma and his uncanny rapport with audiences, Brant’s offstage life was dismal. In a series of interviews with family members, professional collaborators and business managers, a familiar pattern emerges of meteoric success, followed by persistent doubts and fear of failure (aggravated, in Brant’s case, by the double-dealing of Israeli impresario Simon Wajntrob), and culminating in Brant’s suicide leap from a Paris hotel room on April 25, 1975. Mike Brant: Laisse-Moi T’Aimer is worth seeing, however, less as a case history and more as the remembrance of a fascinating artist-one who might have passed into oblivion unknown to most of us were it not for Mr. Laufer’s film.

Listening to 9/11

Alain Brigand is listed as the artistic director of 11’09″01-September 11, a collection of 11 separate short films, each lasting 11 minutes, nine seconds and one frame-11’09″01-and each concerning the events of Sept. 11 and their consequences. Except for Sean Penn, none of the contributors are American, and a few reveal themselves to be virulently anti-American as well. Although Ann Coulter would probably like to have Mr. Penn tried for treason, his episode turns out to be mystifyingly innocuous: Let’s just say I didn’t get it. Ken Loach uses his 11 minutes to take us back to the alleged C.I.A.–Henry Kissinger–sponsored overthrow of the Allende government in Chile a few decades ago, as if to say that the few thousand victims of 9/11 had it coming. Seekers of a certain kind of pornography might be titillated by some hitherto-censored images of people jumping to their deaths from the Twin Towers. When people, either here or abroad, presume to say that we should listen to what 9/11 is “telling” us, I can only think of that scene in Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) when Howard (Walter Huston) corrects the paranoid Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart), who is afraid of bandits stealing his gold when he goes into town. “If you’re unlucky enough to run into bandits,” says Howard, “they’ll kill you for the shoes on your feet.” Unless we Americans want to go barefoot all our lives, we’d better accustom ourselves to the sheer banality of obscene ventures like Mr. Brigand’s 11’09″01.