Todd Field’s Little Children, from a screenplay by Mr. Field and Tom Perrotta, based on the novel by Mr. Perrotta, is centered on a contemporary suburban Madame Bovary, Sarah Pierce, played with full-bodied grace and gusto by Kate Winslet. Sarah is a housewife who seems determined to mortify her ingrained feminist sensibility at every turn. First, she drops out of graduate school to marry a well-off but dull older man, Richard Pierce (Gregg Edelman), who works as a vaguely described business consultant. Then she compounds her frustrations by insisting on raising her young child Lucy (Sadie Goldstein) without a nanny, even though her husband can well afford one. It’s as if she were punishing herself for entering into a loveless marriage.
So there she is, day after day, sitting on a park bench in a small community playground, being scrutinized by three other mothers grouped together like the witches from Macbeth, hurling gossipy incantations at the world. The only variation in this routine occurs when their small impromptu community is titillated by the reappearance, after a short unexplained absence, of a handsome father, Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson), and his little boy Aaron (Ty Simpkins). Since Brad has never spoken to any of the mothers, one of the three witches playfully offers Sarah $5 if she can get the mysterious father’s phone number. Sarah, not altogether uninterested in the good-looking father, agrees to take on the challenge.
After she strikes up a conversation with Brad and tells him about the bet, to his amusement, she impulsively asks him to add to the merriment by giving her a hug. But when he does so enthusiastically—and kisses her on the lips besides—the three witches are hilariously horrified as they flee from the playground with their children in tow.
Just previously, they had been warning Sarah about a neighborhood “sex pervert” named Ronald James McGorvey (Jackie Earle Haley), who has been arrested, convicted, imprisoned and recently released to live with his mother, May (Phyllis Somerville). His crime was exposing himself to little children. “Ronnie,” as his mother still lovingly calls him, becomes one of the linchpin characters early on in the narrative, serving as a litmus test to demonstrate that Sarah is far more tolerant and sophisticated on the subject of deviants than the three witches (and much of the rest of her community).
Meanwhile, Sarah’s impulsive hug and Brad’s impulsive kiss lead to a passionate affair that places Sarah on the perilous path to Bovarydom. This point is pressed home at a women’s book-club meeting, in which Sarah’s occasional baby-sitter has persuaded her to reluctantly participate. The subject of the meeting, of course, is Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. When one of the members dismisses Emma Bovary as a “slut,” Sarah passionately defends the character for struggling against her fate and the traps set up for her by her society. She does not yet fully realize how inadequate Brad is going to be as any kind of long-term prospect.
Brad’s main problem is that he has never outgrown his golden-boy high-school heroics; his marriage to a successful career woman, Kathy Adamson (Jennifer Connelly), hasn’t helped him in his arduous climb to maturity. He still looks longingly at high-school kids doing dangerous leaps on skateboards. Brad has already failed his bar exam on two occasions, and he skips out on a third try to spend a weekend with Sarah.
The two women in Brad’s life express contrasting reactions to his failed bar exams. Kathy wants him to keep trying until he passes; Sarah urges him to stop trying to become a lawyer and move on to some other field. Brad feels that Sarah validates him in a way that his wife never has. Kathy begins to suspect that Brad is having an affair with Sarah, and so she arranges a dinner party for the two couples. This ends with a grotesque charade under the table, where Kathy has descended to retrieve an intentionally dropped fork so as to catch Brad and Sarah playing footsie. Ironically, Kathy fails in her quest, since Brad and Sarah are too guilt-ridden to flaunt their adultery in such a manner. But Sarah’s husband Richard makes enough fatuous comments—and elicits enough bored expressions from Sarah—to let Kathy know that their marriage was not made in heaven.
As the two rivals for Brad’s affection, Ms. Winslet and Ms. Connelly are well cast physically. The long-legged Kathy has always been more Brad’s type than the heavy-browed Sarah; we know this from the minutely detailed, impersonal narration, probably rendered verbatim from Mr. Perrotta’s novel. Cinematic “purists” may froth at the mouth over this degree of literary amplification, but I found after a while that the narration lifted much of the burden of exposition from the dialogue, leaving the characters freer to use their eyes and bodies to convey their emotional awakenings.
Ronnie the pervert pops up spectacularly (if improbably) in a midsummer daytime scene in the municipal pool, wearing a strange-looking scuba-diving outfit and floppy duck shoes. This bizarre costume enables Ronnie to prowl around underwater looking at the lower extremities of the barely clothed mothers and children gyrating above him. When word gets out that the pervert is in the pool, there is a massive exodus from the water, until the police arrive to escort Ronnie from the premises. The sheer mass of this spectacle has reminded some reviewers of the anti-terrorist hysteria that followed 9/11.
Enter another linchpin character, Bullhorn Bob (Raymond J. Barry), an ex-cop and ex-teammate of Brad’s. Bob bumps into Brad one day and persuades him to join a touch-football team that he has formed with current and ex-cops in an informal blue-collar league taken with the utmost seriousness by its participants. In his spare time, Bob constitutes a one-man lynch mob, pasting fliers all over the neighborhood. But when he drunkenly invades Ronnie’s home to give him a thrashing, Ronnie’s outrageous mother intervenes successfully by announcing to all who will listen that Bob once mistakenly killed a young boy who was waving around a toy pistol that looked too much like the real thing. With a bullhorn in one hand, Bob shoves the old lady to the ground, causing her to have an eventually fatal heart attack. The police take Bob into custody, but later release him.
This incident follows a winning football game for Bob’s team, spearheaded by Brad’s last-second touchdown run, which is cheered on by Sarah in the stands. When Brad decides to go out with her after the game rather than join Bob and their teammates in a drunken victory celebration, Bob gets drunk alone and sets off a chain of violent confrontations that will entangle Bob and Ronnie in a completely unexpected way.
As for Sarah and Bob, their intention to run away together is thwarted at the last minute by two separate but potentially perilous reverberations from everything that has come before.
Professional prudence prevents me from revealing the details of the final outcomes for Sarah, Brad, Ronnie, Bob and all the other characters, big and little. But believe me, seldom these days does one encounter such an intricate narrative so persuasively performed by the entire cast, most notably by Ms. Winslet and Mr. Wilson as the adulterous lovers. But then, I’ve been following Ms. Winslet’s career since she first burst upon the screen and the world’s consciousness in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994), and I have never been disappointed.
Do You Believe in Magic? Bah!
Two films about magic and magicians are two too many, if my druthers be known, but of the two that have opened this year, I much prefer The Illusionist to The Prestige, though both works are well-made and well-acted. Whereas The Illusionist plays out as a triumphant love story, The Prestige is comparatively corrosive in its account of a literally deadly rivalry between two ruthlessly and obsessively competing magicians, each determined to steal the other’s secrets. This is to say that given the choice, I prefer the positive to the negative, though I ultimately disapprove of any movie about magicians simply because the illusion of magic is so easy to replicate in the already miraculous medium of motion pictures.
Neil Burger’s The Illusionist has been adapted by Mr. Burger from Steven Millhauser’s short story, “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” and is set in turn-of-the-century Vienna, Austria, though it was actually filmed in the city of Prague in the Czech Republic. Edward Norton plays Eisenheim, a celebrated magician who tantalizes his audience by playing tricks with the laws of nature and physics, most spectacularly by making an orange tree grow in a matter of seconds. Paul Giamatti plays Chief Inspector Uhl, who regularly attends Eisenheim’s performances to find out the secrets to his magic tricks; the powers that be fear that the magician may pose a threat to the empire.
One night, Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) attends a performance with the aristocratic Sophie (Jessica Biel). What the crown prince and even Inspector Uhl don’t know is that Eisenheim and Sophie were childhood lovers before they were forcibly separated by Sophie’s upper-class family. When Eisenheim asks for a lady volunteer from the audience, Leopold arrogantly orders Sophie to go onstage, and thus a life-and-death game begins between Eisenheim and Leopold over Sophie, with Inspector Uhl as an interested witness and eventually the audience’s surrogate, during which Eisenheim appears to cross the boundary between life and death for what turns out to be his greatest feat of magic.
Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige is based on a screenplay written by the director in collaboration with his brother, Jonathan Nolan, the same team responsible for the gimmicky time-twisting neo-noir Memento (2000). Time isn’t exactly twisted in The Prestige, but there are flashbacks and doppelgängers aplenty as upper-class magician Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) squares off against working-class magician Alfred Borden (Christian Bale). Michael Caine’s Cutter is on hand throughout the film as the audience’s master of ceremonies, so to speak. Scarlett Johansson’s saucy wench Olivia works as an assistant to either magician and serves as the pawn, in turn, of both, as each strives to steal the other’s secrets by fair means or foul. David Bowie is absolutely unrecognizable as Nikolai Tesla, the father of alternating-current electricity, whose invention threatened Thomas Edison and his electrical empire, which was based on direct current. Rebecca Hall plays the ostensibly betrayed wife of Borden, who is supposed to be infatuated with his assistant, Olivia—though at this point, the plot became too fuzzy for me to be sure. The film is lavishly mounted, set-wise, costume-wise, makeup-wise and special-effects-wise. But the magicians themselves are cold and devious, and the chill permeates the whole film.