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Review by Elias Savada
Posted 9 April 1999

  Directed by Philip Saville.

Starring Christian Bale, Lee Ross,
Emily Watson, Elsa Zylberstein, Rufus,
Jonathan Aris, Ifan Meredith,
Amanda Ryan, and John Wood.

Screenplay by Adrian Hodges,
based on the novel by Julian Barnes.

This U.K. import will only find a smallish audience to appreciate its time-skipping story of two chums who grew up, fell apart, and then reunited as young adults at the end of the London underground Metropolitan Line. Last stop, Metroland. Very reminiscent of Michael Leigh’s Career Girls, this variant from long-time Brit feature and television director Philip Saville (dating back to 1966’s Stop the World -- I Want To Get Off) shows of his yeoman abilities to put an admirable but ultimately "so-what" spin on the screenplay by Adrian Hodges (last represented on these shores with his Academy Award-nominated Tom and Viv five years ago. This well told story about relatively drab characters -- which feels better suited to the small screen -- is based on the 19-year-old debut novel by Julian Barnes (a French adaptation of his Love, etc. is scheduled to arrive in the States at the end of May), greatly admired by the feature’s director and producer Andrew Bendel.

After a flurry of film festival presentations (Venice, Toronto, Palm Springs, Seattle, etc.), Metroland stops at New York and Los Angeles stations before shuttling into other railyards nationwide this spring. Thankfully, the film doesn’t crash or burn, but just moves along at it’s own assured pace, reflecting on the tediousness of life and the middle-class ruts that strand many people along the tracks. American folk singer Pete Seeger years ago intoned of such communities as "little boxes made of ticky-tacky," and this British cinematic equivalent does have its moments, including a short, witty one defining the neighborhood routine of commuter husbands all washing their cars in unison. hristian Bale and Lee Ross play best buds Chris and Toni, a chaotic relationship cemented back in 1963 (and embellished through a series of flashbacks in which these members of the "angry generation" spite their bourgeois neighbors). As the film unfolds it is 1977 and Chris has settled into a comfortable, boring life less than a mile from where he grew up. He has a complacent commercial photography job (a long-planned photo book lays buried in an office drawer), a beautiful yet unsociable wife, Marion (Oscar winner/nominee Emily Watson), and a baby whose ill-timed outbursts often interrupt its parents’ sleep and sex life. Another abrupt obstruction in their day-to-day existence (signaled by a 3:30 a.m. phone call) is the unannounced re-appearance of the obnoxious, anti-establishment Toni, returning to England after five years abroad. The reunion is a tenuous one, their divergent paths having set their lifestyles in different social strata. A ruffled, disheveled Toni drags his domesticated friend into a punk bar that shows off clean-cut Chris’ fish-out-of-water nature. Efforts by the childish Toni, he of the raging libido and all-hours party mindset, to bring out his old schoolmate’s dark side is compounded by Chris’ own wishful daydreams in which his doting wife suggests her husband dabble about with other women. Like an out-of-shape athlete, the reserved Chris nearly fumbles away his morals at his friend’s bidding, and ends up instead with a case of plop-plop, fizz-fizz.

By contrast, Chris makes the brief acquaintance of a ghost-like fellow commuter (John Wood), put out to pasture after a 42-year job stint with little to show, other than the limited future that lay ahead for Chris. So, perhaps it is time to give the devilish Toni his do. The tensions escalate as the guys realize their half-decade schism apart is actually growing wider as they reminisce about their past, exacerbated by Marion’s obvious disdain for the irresponsible Toni’s intrusion, and speckled with a touch of jealousy.

Toni’s pontifications about free love and Chris’ accidental discovery of some of his old soft core photographs hidden in French edition of Flaubert evokes an extended flashback by the now-and-ever monogamous Chris to his virginal days in 1968 in Bohemian, post-riot Paris, where he becomes a lover to the passionate, carefree Annick (Elsa Zylberstein), a leopard-skin outfitted stunner whose voracious sexual appetite sparks up her scenes a notch. Jean-François Robin’s photography captures the period and locale perfectly, washing this sequence in a sepia-yellow tone

Christian Bale (Empire of the Senses, Portrait of a Lady, and Velvet Goldmine) is a hot item with a growing arena of fans. He hits the right notes here as a poor sot stuck in a hole. Lions Gate Films, which is releasing Metroland, has cast Bale as a serial killer in the controversial adaptation of Brett Easton Ellis’ novel "American Psycho" (a notorious project once connected with Leonardo DiCaprio), but his next appearance will be alongside Kevin Kline and Michelle Pfeiffer in the forthcoming A Midsummer’s Night Dream, the latest update in a season already full of Shakespeare. Lee Ross fills his nasty foil role with just the right touch of antagonism and hedonism. Neither actor has had as much recognition among American audiences as Emily Watson though, and while she captures her role as a sedate suburban housewife with the same compassion she has all of her just five films, her character is largely subordinate this go round and is nowhere close to her earlier award-winning performances.

There’s nothing extraordinary about Metroland. It’s a gracious tome about strained relationships painted on the ordinary canvas of middle class life. Like Chris’ double-guessing character, the film might or might not be worth you stopping off for a look, but you best do it sooner than later as I suspect this won’t be around all that long.

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