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Twice Upon a Yesterday

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 9 June 1999

  Directed by Maria Ripoll.

Starring Douglas Henshall,
Lena Headey, Penélope Cruz,
Mark Strong, Charlotte Coleman,
Elizabeth McGovern, Eusebio Lázaro,
Neil Stuke, and Gustavo Salmerón.

Written by Rafa Russo.

Equal doses of fairy tale with quixotic overtones, romantic treacle, and subtle sci-fi (no fx experience required), Twice Upon a Yesterday is a small British-Spanish import and the sort of film that looks (marginally) better on paper than on screen. This high concept, low budget piece reads like Sliding Doors without the inventive inter-cutting technique and the glamour of Gwyneth Paltrow. Think two versions of the same story told over the same eight month period, one following the other, the latter edition occasionally sprinkled with some expected and some fateful alterations from the first.

Victor Bukowski (Douglas Henshall, a grizzled version of Kenneth Branagh after a disaster at the hair dresser) is the lovelorn rapscallion who decides, on the eve of his ex-live-in girlfriend (Lena Headley), Sylvia Weld’s wedding to agricultural engineer/consultant Dave Summers (Mark Strong), that she’s marrying the wrong guy. "If you had it all to do over again, what would you do" is the pretense to making this film, and one drunken, magical night under rain-soaked, mysterious circumstances, dapper sanitary engineers (they’re too clean to be called garbage collectors) Don Miguel (Eusebio Lázaro) and sidekick Rafel (Gustavo Salmerón) pluck him from a dumpster and deposit our disheveled, fool-in-love, hairy-necked hero back on the streets eight months earlier. As if waking from a bad hangover, Victor rises in the post-coital aftermath of a now-remembered unsuccessful affair with a fellow thespian, at the expense of Sylvia’s deepening relationship with Victor, now well into its sixth year. Armed with three seasons of selfish, boozy memories, Victor sets out to cure his immoral ways, clean up his act on stage and off, including his underwear, and do the right thing. The audience, fully aware of the possibilities afoot, is supposed to relish in the forsaken lad’s predicament, as he awaits destiny with a huge advantage. Rafa Russo’s first screenplay has an inkling of a fascinating idea that never gets fleshed out with Maria Ripoll’s unsteady hand on her feature directorial debut. It’s technically efficient, and she catches the spirit of the underlying material, but it’s still a road already traveled, and traveled better. If you’re going to do it again, you should do it better.

Set in the same section of London that current hit Notting Hill has captured to greater success, Twice Upon a Yesterday wanders about Portobello Road as Vic’s personality changes immediately in his attempt to woo his princess all over again. However, too much of a good thing throws the timeless wrench into the enchanted script mechanism as it approaches the present as depicted at the film’s beginning, and what seems to be going along smoothly instead goes awry when Vic overcompensates his focus (breathlessly pouring through psychology books to converse on an even level with Sylvia, then ending up a BBC sitcom regular instead of an out-of-work actor) and smoothers the awe-struck girl friend with too much affection. Dave comes back into the picture, first as a date for Alison, Sylvia’s best friend (refreshingly played by Charlotte Coleman, one of the comedy troupe that made Four Weddings and a Funeral all the more memorable five years ago), and then as a dastardly foil to Vic’s best laid plans, initially in the front seat of a Volkswagen and later indoors.

Appearing all too briefly is Elizabeth McGovern as a red-headed barmaid/MacGuffin/angel that perhaps holds an answer for Vic. She’s playing the female counterpart to the Michael Caine character Mike that graced the similar, quick-to-video, time-shift fantasy Mr. Destiny back in 1990, with James Belushi and Linda Hamilton in the leads. Luisa (European beauty Penélope Cruz) stumbles into the romantic mix, as a struggling writer mixing drinks and spouting references to Don Quixote.

The movie tries to hurdle over time, but it’s annoying cloy, sometimes hitting the viewer on the head with "significance," as when a symbolic guitar neck is snapped in two. Mistakes are hard to fix, even with the advantages afforded Vic in Twice Upon a Yesterday, and a too cute fadeout left me we a groan as the lights came up.

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