Waterland (1992) Short Review

This is only the 2nd Stephen Gyllenhaal movie that I’ve seen (Losing Isaiah being the other), and despite some hiccups here and there I mostly liked this one. Jeremy Irons is always outstanding no matter what he’s in. If you think he always gives the same performance in every film, then you would be mistaken. He’s one of those British actors that can deliver the most impossibly structured archaic elegiac pentameter and make it sound like common speech. He wistfully (appropriately) portrays a history teacher damaged by some early events in his life.

The story is told by the teacher to his students of his own past. Maybe it’s told that way because one of the students finally triggers the crisis moment which the character had kept withdrwn for so long. The story is that of the teacher’s relationship with his future wife and the tragedies that bind them together. It’s a film with very adult sensibilities. It doesn’t turn the camera away from some of the more awkward or horrible incidents.  It’s there in the daylight.

I thought Lena Headey was good as the young love interest (and who maybe causes all of the melancholy). I have quickly become a fan of hers after seeing her in films like Aberdeen. I didn’t know she was in this one so that was a pleasant surprise. She carries a lot of the load in the scenes involving the past. I think you can see how intelligent she is as an actress in this. She doesn’t just say the lines, she IS the character.

David Morrisey is also notable as one of the town’s so called potato heads, Dick Crick, the older brother of the Irons character. He is a mentally challenged man that is both menacing and tragic victim in this. He is very believable and his fate just adds to the story’s misfortunes. Oddly, he looks like a larger Paul Dano in this.

If I had looked at the Ratings description I would have seen the source of all of the frowns and I probably would not have watched it, either. The film is cynical while being artsy-fartsy. I see it in some ways as a cousin to Terry Gilliam’s Tideland, whose story is of the resilence of children growing up in a corrupt environment. Although I thought that one crossed the line a couple of times, its thrust was a hopeful one and I got what Gilliam meant even if  I didn’t get why so many were troubled by what he put onscreen. It also featured a lot of the same kind of water motifs as Waterland, but in a less dismal fashion.

Some of the way the story is told is in the way of high school drama classes where the students are presented interacting with the memories of the teacher, but it doesn’t seem to always carry through as the device through which the story is told. It seems sometimes Gyllenhaal was bored with the idea, but would later change his mind, deciding to use it. The usage is sporadic. It also seemed unnecessary in the end. The story set in the film’s present didn’t  really require the student teacher reaction other than to use that as the storytelling device. The story could have been told straightforward and still had the same impact I think. There was a bit of gratuity also that IMHO should have been cut from the film serving no purpose to the rest of what was presented.

Ethan Hawke plays the contrarian student, a high school elitist who has already decided that he not only knows more than everyone else, he is compelled to inform everyone of that fact. I thought some of the weakness of the story was in Irons’ characters inability to answer some of the simplest questions from him about history in order to move the film along.The nepotistic moment (with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s first onscreen appearance) didn’t bother me as much. A good film, even if it is a bit of a downer.

4 of 5


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