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Tom Crick, a high school history teacher, is having trouble connecting - with his class, with his wife. He ventures into telling his class stories about his young adulthood in the Fens district in England. The emotional wounds from his younger life wash over him in present day, affecting his work and his relationships with his students and his wife.Written by
Martin Lewison <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Once upon a time, children, there was a history teacher who came home one day, after giving a class on the French Revolution, to find that his wife, the woman he loved since they were children, had herself committed a revolutionary, a miraculous act.
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I have not read the novel, but a quick glance at a synopsis of the plot suggests what a mess they've made of it on film. The novel sounds like a serious, intellectual drama. The film is an attempt to simplify the concepts involved, and turn them into a rather straightforward drama. In itself, and no further, this might have succeeded. The failure is caused by other things.
The transferral of the Cricks from Greenwich to Pittsburgh is a disastrous mistake - the only reason for doing it was clearly the American box office. Again, the distributors tend to assume that Americans are too stupid to take in a drama set in England. They are wrong.
The conversations between Irons (Crick) and John Heard, as American school-teachers discussing education in 1974, are embarrassingly wrong somehow, and bang an entirely wrong beat. The time you first realise Irons is addressing his class of teenagers (Ethan Hawke is 22, actually) as 'children' is even more excruciating. The fact that he apologises for this expression in his farewell speech made me think that one of the script editors had only just noticed how dumb it sounded, and shoved it in as an 'apology' (to the film-goer rather than to the student) at the end.
Things get worse. When Irons shows his 'children' a print of the Guillotine and describes, very mildly, some of the mutilated corpses, they all exclaim 'Oh God, no...' and 'Aaargh, how sickening...' They sound more like children from 'Pollyanna', than actual teenagers from Pittsburgh, who'd have grown up under Vietnam, and were just about to see 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.' Nearly every 'American' scene is mind-numbingly awful. Irons's farewell speech is hardly Michael Redgrave (or even Albert Finney) in 'The Browning Version.'
Someone had another pointless idea. "When Irons starts talking about his past life, let's have the American teenagers actually transported there on the screen." This makes no sense, and after a while the whole idea seems to have been mercifully abandoned. The scene of them trundling across Norfolk in a truck was risible, and I half-expected Captain Mainwaring and Jones's van to appear at any minute. The assumption behind this 'idea' seems that the film-goer is in reality just as thick as John Heard assumes students are - i.e. no one's interested in history and the past - so our best bet is to actually SHOW Ethan Hawke tramping about in the Fens of WW2.
John Heard and Peter Postlethwaite are completely wasted, and David Morrissey does the valiant best he can as Irons's mentally handicapped elder brother. I have always found Jeremy Irons greatly over-rated, and 'Waterland' shows just how insipid his acting can be at times. I was - even within the constrictions of the wreckage made of the Graham Swift novel by the scriptwriters - longing for a Dirk Bogarde or a Christopher Ecclestone. Irons simply doesn't carry it. In fact, the bar room scene with Irons and Ethan Hawke showed how much better Hawke is. I was reminded of Hawke with Robin Williams in 'Dead Poets Society' three years earlier. Even that has tinges of embarrassment (most filmmakers have no real idea what schools or universities are like - watch Lewis Gilbert's hysterical portrayal of a 1980's British university in 'Educating Rita') but 'Dead Poets Society' is great stuff compared to the wet mess of 'Waterland'. (Like most films of this sort, it has lashings of dull 'mood music' - always appearing at the completely wrong moment in the film.)
PS Ethan Hawke looks 'pretty.'
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