The Queen Is Dead
Little Children, by contrast, seems a sedate affair, as mannered in its suburban American way as Marie Antoinette. Whereas Climates is suggestive and elliptical in its storytelling, Little Children is ample and expository. There's even an all-knowing, slightly amused narrator to explain the characters to you in voiceover, as if this were an installment of Desperate Housewives or Grey's Anatomy.
This is merely to say that wounds borne lightly can still hurt.
Directed by Todd Field (In the Bedroom), based on a novel by Tom Perrotta (Election), Little Children is the story of an adulterous love affair carried out by a woman who is too smart for the life she's leading and a man who's a little too dumb. Sarah (Kate Winslet) used to study literature, but now she holes up in one room of her big, overdecorated house (the better to avoid her creepy husband) and shuttles her young daughter to the playground, where she has nothing, but nothing, in common with the other mothers. The equally unemployed Brad (Patrick Wilson) tries to mollify his daunting wife by pretending to study for the bar exam (he's flunked it repeatedly). Daytimes, while she's at work, he shuttles their young son to the same playground that Sarah frequents, where he serves as an object of fascination for the mothers. "The Prom King," they call him. As if on a dare (whether from herself or the other women, who can say), Sarah introduces herself to Brad one morning and cadges from him a hug and a kiss. By the third reel, they're banging away energetically in the laundry room, while the kids nap upstairs behind one of those useful accordion gates.
"Do you feel bad about this?" they ask in the aftermath. Understanding themselves to be good people, they would like to feel bad. But worse people live in the neighborhood--a paroled sex offender (Jackie Earle Haley), a raging ex-cop (Noah Emmerich)--and summer days are long.
All this is funny and touching but also familiar--so familiar that at one point Sarah can be roped into a book club meeting where the suburban ladies discuss Madame Bovary. It's perhaps a mark of the story's conventionality that some of the minor characters (Haley in particular) register more vividly than the leads. And yet Field's effortlessly fluent, impeccably timed direction moves the film along as if it were all freshly observed, while Winslet and Wilson, in a triumph of nuanced, unshowy acting, bring the shadow of desperation and dangerousness to the surface of good, normal people.
Fewer documentaries than usual were included in this edition of the New York Film Festival--but one of them was Michael Apted's 49 Up, and that counts for seven in itself.
Not so much a film as a lifelong project, 49 Up began in 1964 as a one-off television program, in which the producers brought together and interviewed a disparate group of 7-year-old girls and boys. The initial show "had a sly, ingenuous surface," Apted recalls, which hid a "fierce indictment of the British class system." The program proposed that these children, who so charmingly lisped the prejudices of their elders, might provide a glimpse of England in the year 2000. To test that proposition, Apted every seven years has revisited as many of the subjects as would still speak with him.
What we have now, in 49 Up, is an astonishing time-lapse photograph, not so much of England in the year 2006 as of a dozen varied people who have "grown fat and lost their hair" (as one of them says with an edgy pretense of good humor). Do their lives confirm the inflexibility of the class system? I'd say rather that they show how people have remained within changed classes. The East Enders, for example, are more prosperous than they might ever have imagined, but they have scattered from their old neighborhood, with its darker skinned people. The gender divide, meanwhile, is unaltered. The men talk more than the women do about their jobs; while the women (who as a group are relatively embittered) talk more than the men about mates, children and illness.
But these are generalities. The wonder of 49 Up is its unfolding, within a little more than two hours, of so many specific lives: the taxi driver, the librarian, the barrister, the college professor, the mother on disability, the recovering madman. They've mostly followed the paths you might have predicted in 1964; and each of them is a surprise.