Michael Cunningham's 1990 novel makes an assured, if not entirely satisfying, transition to the big screen in this terrifically acted exploration of the bonds that transcend traditional notions of family.
Although gay men will identify most with the story of love between longtime friends, the literary pedigree and tender emotional tone of "A Home at the End of the World", as well as the presence of Colin Farrell, could attract a far broader art house audience. The film closed Los Angeles' Outfest on Monday before its theatrical bow Friday as the second release from Warner Independent Pictures.
In adapting his novel -- which traverses two decades, from the giddiness of the late '60s to the onset of the AIDS epidemic -- Cunningham ("The Hours") has reduced its complexity and detail. While accomplished theater director Michael Mayer ("Side Man") orchestrates the material with a feel for its intimacy as well as its social sweep, the later sections of the story are more static than they should be, muting the film's impact.
Without the book's penetrating descriptive prose, the dialogue too often sounds like the pointed eloquence of literary characters -- especially in the late going, when the story grows increasingly episodic and the characters begin to feel less like individuals than generational symbols.
Still, Mayer displays a true affinity for actors, and his cast delivers subtle work. As the central character, a young man caught between innocence and experience, joy and loss, versatile Irish actor Farrell evinces more vulnerability and ingenuousness than he's yet shown onscreen. (But he doesn't show everything: A full-frontal shot of the actor proved too distracting for audiences and didn't make the final edit.)
The story begins in 1967 Cleveland, where 9-year-old Bobby (Andrew Chalmers
) worships his older brother, Carlton (Ryan Donowho
), a lanky, self-possessed teen so at ease in the world that he seems to lower its pulse. They trip together on acid and their own wild potential. When Carlton dies in a horrific accident, it's the beginning of Bobby's unmooring from his nuclear family.
By the time he's orphaned at 16 (Erik Smith plays the teenage Bobby) and moves in with his best friend, Jonathan (Harris Allan
), he has long since become an integral part of that household. He and Jonathan's mother (Sissy Spacek) enjoy a deep connection, beginning with the lovely scene, complete with Laura Nyro
on the stereo, when Bobby turns Alice on to pot.
Having experienced brutal loss so young, Bobby looks upon the people he cares about with a sweetly unfocused gaze, as though he dare not tempt fate by attaching himself to anyone again. Even when he and Jonathan add sex to their relationship, Bobby views their actions merely as an expression of free-floating love.
When Bobby and Jonathan reconnect as young adults -- played by Farrell and the impressive Dallas Roberts
, in his first major screen role -- Bobby is yet again joining Jonathan's household. This time it's an East Village walkup Jonathan shares with the exuberant Clare (Robin Penn Wright), survivor of a bad marriage. She's in love with Jonathan, who's still in love with Bobby and moving restlessly through a succession of one-night stands. The trio navigate their unresolved longings, toward a tentative equilibrium.
Clare is the kind of role that could be a bohemian cliche in lesser hands, but the redoubtable Wright Penn transcends the character's showiness, infusing her with an aching hope. She and Roberts convey the fragility beneath their characters' banter, while Farrell embodies Bobby's guileless charm.
But as strong as the performances of Farrell, Roberts and Wright Penn are, the film's early sections are its most affecting. From the apt period tracks by Nyro, Leonard Cohen
and the Band to the patterned fabrics of Beth Pasternak
's costumes and Michael Shaw's evocative production design, the Ohio scenes are alive with the birth pangs of a new world. The young actors, who are excellent physical matches for their adult counterparts, provide outstanding work.
Throughout, Enrique Chediak
's widescreen camerawork is intimate and vivid. Duncan Sheik
's understated score enhances the polished production.
A HOME AT THE END OF THE WORLD
Warner Independent Pictures
Killer Films/John Wells Prods./Hart Sharp Entertainment/Plymouth Projects
Director: Michael Mayer
Screenwriter: Michael Cunningham
Producers: Tom Hulce
, Katie Roumel
, Pamela Koffler
, Christine Vachon
, John N. Hart Jr., Jeffrey Sharp, John Wells
Executive producers: John Sloss
, Michael Hogan
Director of photography: Enrique Chediak
Production designer: Michael Shaw
Music: Duncan Sheik
Co-producers: Jocelyn Hayes
, Bradford Simpson
, Robert Kessel
, Julia Rask
Costume designer: Beth Pasternak
Editors: Lee Percy
, Andrew Marcus
Bobby Morrow: Colin Farrell
Clare: Robin Wright Penn
Jonathan: Dallas Roberts
Alice Glover: Sissy Spacek
Bobby (1974): Erik Smith
Jonathan (1974): Harris Allan
Carlton: Ryan Donowho
Bobby (1967): Andrew Chalmers
Ned Glover: Matt Frewer
Running time -- 97 minutes
MPAA rating: R