Harry Potter!
Cinema Signal:
Screenplay and Notes
by Sally Potter, John Berger, Pankaj Mishra

Sex in America

. "Yes"

This movie is one for the record books. Outside of Shakespearean plays adapted for the screen, and perhaps a few others from the rennaisance, there may never have been another screenplay written in iambic pentameter, as British writer-director Sally Potter ("Orlando") has done for "Yes." Not that it's a great choice, but it is different and commands some respect.

Without getting too deep into the poetic form, let's see what it is: Iambic pentameter is a rhythmical pattern of syllables, going from an unstressed syllable to a stressed one. The "pentameter" part means that this iambic rhythm is repeated five times. Okay, class. Everyone understand what Ms. Potter has wrought here? No? Okay, so let's have an example:

In "The Declaration of Independence," Jefferson wrote in line 1, "We hold these truths to be self-evident." This is iambic pentameter. But what about the rhyme? Here's a more complete example:

Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds,
Baked in a pie.

Potter's entire screenplay is in this cadence and rhyme scheme. She found, however, that it serves the dramatic flow and clarity best to have the actors speak their lines without regard to or special stress on the rhyme. But, the adherence to this pattern, and to the conventions of Shakespeare's day, does add a peculiarity to the movie.

This begins in the first frames. A cleaning woman (Shirley Henderson, "Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself"), while collecting bedsheets and puffing up pillows in the London home of her employers, talks to the camera like a medieval chorus. She's pert and funny, but the style is likely to be disconcerting for anyone not expecting it. She talks to us about the nature of dirt and how it's everywhere. Moreover, not only does she return for wise and illuminating interjections throughout the drama, but every time a different cleaning person on other sets are in a scene, the camera goes in for a leering closeup. The people who clean up our mess is a theme, here. Be that as it may, the white, spotless, elegant apartment characterizes the marriage that it houses.

The cleaner is in the employ of a woman identified only as "She" (Joan Allen), a microbiologist who is unhappily married to philandering English politician husband Anthony (Sam Neill). She (the unhappy wife) dutifully attends functions with her VIP spouse, but all is obviously not well, and she mopes in isolation and loneliness.

Enter "He," (Simon Abkarian) a Lebanese national who works as cook and table waiter for the diplomatic banquet the political couple is attending. They catch each other's eye and sparks fly. (See, rhyming is contagious). As this unlikely pair gets to know each other, we learn that he's a trained surgeon who had to excape from Beirut and now gets no closer to his profession than in the expert way he cuts meat in the kitchen. He's also self-effacing and funny, which adds to the attraction. Of course, it's emotional emptiness that she primarily needs to fill.

The relationship is not without its lurid libidos, deceptions, secret trysts, etc. Potter's intention to sensationalize and scandalize repressed emotions in the style of a Harlequin novel comes with the dynamics of an Americanized Muslim in a love affair with a rich, independent American woman.

The kitchen is a great place for supporting characters of a Shakespearean drama, and it's there that the cook's fellow workers, (Gary Lewis, Wil Johnson, and Raymond Waring) discuss larger issues, compete, and taunt the Lebanese lover. This intensifies until it turns cruel and personal, ending in a fracas and the cook getting fired. He takes it out on her... that is, She, as the closest receptacle for his rage and disappointment. Pretty soon he's flying off the handle about the political imbalances concerning dark-skinned immigrants in America in which, of course, she's implicated and condemned, causing a rift.

The publicity on this movie trumpets the usual elements, excellent cast (with which I fully agree), intercultural love affair, etc. It says nothing about the style of the moviemaking and it's the style that is everything about the movie. It's so apart from anything we've seen in theatres -- even arthouses -- it's almost an outrage to say nothing about it to prepare the unwitting audience. (I'll change that if I see a reference to iambic pentameter in the ads).

Joan Allen keeps proving what a treasure she is. She's so smooth, you'd think that dealing with the rhyme scheme was just another day at work. More importantly, she's an actor who can convey emotion with the best of them, and I mean the best. Abkarian carries off the Lebanese emigre resoundingly, with great animation and shades of complexity, ranging from lighthearted humor to heartsore disappointment. And, don't forget Shirley Hendersen.

This gem of English cinema is the right kind of gamin for the sprightly, ubiquitous chorus, and she plays the ironies of the story as a delicately devilish instrument. She's shown up in a variety of less than breakthrough roles, such as in the two Bridget Jones movies and as Moaning Myrtle in "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," a part she'll reprise in the upcoming "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" later this year.

Sam Neill is appropriately-stiff necked and unapproachable, somehow hanging on to a politician's grand gesture and a husband's disillusionment, all with subtle skill. Sympathy is in short supply for this character.

Even with such a cast, big boxoffice numbers are unlikely for this singular piece of work but I urge everyone who may have liked Potter's Orlando, English professors, language connoisseurs, Joan Allen fans, and repressed housewives to have a look at this modern adventure in poetic drama. Poetry circles should be bristling in anticipation.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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