Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World was a fine novel, an unconventional story about the variety of ways one can fall in love and the difficulty of creating a life not bound by conventional roles. Its themes were as big as life itself, addressing loss, the irrationality of emotion, and the seeking of one’s own identity. When I first heard there was to be a movie, I was ambivalent. The conventional wisdom says that good books make terrible movies, and vice versa. But Cunningham’s The Hours was made into an exceedingly thoughtful film that nearly lived up to the quality of the book—could he hit the jackpot again?
The answer may be as complex as the film itself (though neither is as complex as the book, of course). So many things about this film work very well indeed, starting with the casting. Not only are Colin Farrell (Bobby) and Dallas Roberts (Jonathon) physically right for their roles, their nuanced performances are consistently on target. And the actors chosen to play them at earlier points, Andrew Chalmers and Erik Smith as Bobby and Harris Allan as Jonathon, are excellent matches for the adult actors in both appearance and manner. I initially had reservations about Robin Wright Penn as Clare, not because I doubted her abilities, but because I believed she was too beautiful for the role. Her performance dispels all doubts; she embodies the character’s attitudes and acerbic wit so fully and forcefully that you forget after a while that you’re watching the actress who played the Princess Bride and Jenny in Forrest Gump. She allows costume and makeup to transform her into a woman with no faith in her own beauty who instead presents herself to the world from behind a kabuki-like mask, her very existence a kind of performance art.
The story centers on the love triangle between these three characters. Bobby and Jonathon meet at their Cleveland high school in 1974, two isolated opposites magnetically drawn together. The adolescent Jonathon is self-conscious, tightly wound, not sure of the place he occupies in the world. The coltish Harris Allan does an excellent job of projecting Jonathon’s uneasiness, the sense that the abrupt growth of adolescence has forced him to take up more space than he’s comfortable with. Bobby, damaged by the loss of his brother and mother, has come to a tenuous compromise with life. He seems largely disengaged, but under Jonathon’s fond attentions he begins to open up, to feel again. Their styles turn out to be not opposite but complementary, and their lives become inextricably intertwined.
The boys spend most of their time together in Jonathon’s room, smoking pot and listening to records. Before long, Bobby has charmed Jonathon’s mother, Alice (Sissy Spacek), into being a willing co-conspirator. Spacek is charming as always, but I wish she had more to do. We see her character tentatively but greedily shaking off some of the shackles of suburban motherhood, but there’s no hint of the inner turmoil that drives her to do it.
The film’s director, Michael Mayer, handles the scenes between the adolescent Jonathon and Bobby sensitively, developing their relationship with subtlety and realism but also emphasizing the convergence of opposites through visual cues. When we see the two begin to move beyond friendship, Bobby wears a yellow shirt against a yellow background while Jonathon is in blue against a blue background. Each character has lived up until now in an interior world to which no one else was permitted admittance. Opening themselves up to each other is dangerous but thrilling. It’s clear they’d both wished for something like this to happen, but the risks are terrifying.
As time passes and the bond between the boys is frayed by Jonathon’s angst, Bobby turns to Alice. She molds him in her own image, as Jonathon had, and Bobby becomes a gifted pastry chef. Jonathon’s ambitions drive him to New York, where he winds up in living with an eccentric, slightly older bohemian woman named Clare. When Jonathon’s parents retire to Arizona, Bobby follows him to New York.
Though Jonathon is gay, there is a lovers’ bond between him and Clare that transcends sex. In the time since he left Cleveland, she is the only person Jonathon has permitted himself to love; indeed he fears he can’t love anyone romantically. His sex life consists of a series of one-night stands with men who will never measure up to his expectations. He feels always that something is missing, that he must continually search for his true self. He wants to be in love, wants simple, direct answers to the questions of identity that have plagued him since adolescence, but he is mired in his own ambivalence and his hatred of his inability to make things in his life click. His color preferences symbolize his need for clarity—surrounded by the riotous hues of Clare’s world, he lives in an all-white room and wears only black clothes. This is Roberts’ first major film role, though he has a strong theatrical background. He adeptly personifies Jonathon’s essential ambivalence and self-hatred without making him dislikable. He and Farrell have a credible chemistry in their scenes together, playing two men who are not quite lovers and not quite brothers.
The introduction of Bobby into the household throws the situation into a disarray that none of them perceives at first. There is still love between the two men, but Clare, hurt that Jonathon cannot return her romantic attachment, willfully latches onto Bobby and makes him her lover. She transforms Bobby into her idea of him, and he acquiesces because he doesn’t care. Bobby doesn’t need a sense of self; he needs only to be loved, so he allows himself to be repeatedly remade in someone else’s image, first his older brother’s, then Jonathon’s, Alice’s, and finally Clare’s.
Those who know Colin Farrell only from his roles in Phone Booth or The Recruit will be unprepared for his performance here. Bobby’s earnest manner comes off as vacant, almost autistic; he seems barely engaged with life, but underneath his lack of affect is a simple, Zen-like acceptance of things as they are and a joy in the ephemeral moments that constitute a life. He falls in love indiscriminately with anyone who is kind to him. His scenes with Sissy Spacek (as played by both Farrell and by Smith) have as much sexual tension as his scenes with Roberts or Wright Penn. His openness to loving anyone has a narcotizing effect, cushioning the losses he’s come to see as inevitable.
The film embraces paradox. Farrell’s brawny physicality is subsumed beneath Bobby’s affectless demeanor, while Jonathon’s looming existential ambivalence makes the physically slight Roberts the most solid presence on the screen. Wright Penn’s Clare is a fag hag whose flamboyant unconventionality serves as a smokescreen for her conventional desires.
Clare has a lot of ideas about who she is, but most of them turn out to be wrong. In quick succession she has fallen in love with two men who cannot love her as deeply as they do one another. When the three appear to have arrived at a compromise, a way of living that can include them all and answer their individual needs, it is Clare who remains unsatisfied. Wright Penn plays her scenes masterfully, making the audience empathize with Clare without entirely liking her. The character is flawed, but she’s unaware of her own neediness and manipulation. Wright Penn draws the audience in with her transparency, as when Clare stumbles upon a private moment between Bobby and Jonathon and her face shifts from bemusement to affection to profound isolation.
First-time film director Mayer comes from the stage, with several Broadway successes under his belt, and has a very sure hand with actors. He does a magnificent job of drawing subtle, honest performances out of the entire cast. He also directs with a surprising lightness—most scenes are played casually, with humor rather than pomp, but the offhand manner doesn’t undercut the powerful emotions at work; it merely leavens them with pleasure.
Michael Cunningham wrote the screenplay himself, drastically revising his own novel. He takes a free hand with the events of the story, but the interpretation of the characters is entirely consistent. Unfortunately, like many movies that elide significant chunks of their sources, the movie sometimes feels truncated, the story moves forward too abruptly. At 96 minutes, it could easily be half an hour longer, giving time to better develop the relationships between the characters. The movie has also lost some of the novel’s subtlety, shouting themes the book only implied. The dialogue, though, mostly retains Cunningham’s subtle, sincere questioning of the nature of life and love, and the moving performances offset the script’s flaws. Both book and film are too satisfying to miss.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film Reviews | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()