The British actress Janet McTeer isn’t just big; she’s Valkyrean big. I remember watching her on Broadway in A Doll’s House and thinking that the doll’s house didn’t have a chance. McTeer is such a heroic presence – not simply in terms of stature but also in terms of her outsize emotions – that she requires nothing less than heroic roles. And, of course, this puts her at a career disadvantage right now since movie roles for women, excepting the pop-action variety, are rarely bigger-than-life. She was charming as a working-class single mother in Tumbleweeds, but for the most part, as in the recent stranded-in-the-desert bummer The King Is Alive, McTeer reaches for grand effects even when her characters are small-time. Her writ-large theatricality, plus a certain brazen blankness in her features, often keeps her from truly connecting with audiences.
As Dr. Lily Penleric in the uneven, occasionally stirring Songcatcher, written and directed by Maggie Greenwald, McTeer plays a turn-of-the-(last)-century musicologist who ventures into the North Carolina mountain country to collect and record the music of the hollows. It’s probably the best role she’s had in the movies, since it allows her to be both physically and emotionally passionate. Clambering up the steep slopes in the heat with her cumbersome, primitive recording equipment in tow, she has a corset-straining athleticism matched by her sheer unkillable determination to capture the sounds of the mountain people. Lily has already been turned down for a promotion at the East Coast college where she teaches, and her trip into Appalachia, where her sister (Jane Adams) is a school instructor, is her way of rejuvenating her life (and her academic credentials). The character is loosely based on Olive Dame Campbell, a real-life songcatcher who swept through the Blue Ridge in 1908. The realistic trappings of the role root the heroism. When Lily finally gains the trust of the mountain people and they pour out their souls to her in song, it’s as if we had entered an enchanted glade where everyone, from birth, was gifted with the ability to express harmonically his deepest griefs and yearnings. Lily’s attempt to bring the music of these people to the outside world ensures its survival just as inevitably as the music’s popularity will one day commercialize the culture from which it came.
That’s a paradox worth exploring, but Greenwald reduces the resonances to a running battle between Lily and an ornery mountain man, Tom Bledsoe (Aidan Quinn), who accuses her of exploiting the Appalachians before he not surprisingly becomes her lover and collaborator. What we don’t see is how Lily and Tom are united by the tragic beauty of this music, how each is changed by the promise of the other’s world. The closest we come is an uncharacteristically unguarded moment when Lily tells Tom that she has never heard such singing – “It’s like the air you all breathe” – and the words fall perfectly into place because it’s just what we’ve been thinking, too. McTeer is so expressive in scenes like this that you wish the whole movie could have been as true. Aidan Quinn isn’t a match for her here; he tends to get all mumbly inside his unkempt beard, and when he tells Lily, in all sincerity, that her passion for his music has made him proud, it’s just talk.
Greenwald works a lot of conventional material into the decidedly unconventional story she has chosen to tell, and the result is like a wavering back and forth between Mother Courage and Little House on the Prairie: There’s a dewy teenage-love subplot, and a Sapphic one, as well as the requisite coal-mining-company bad guys, a barn-dance brawl, and a fair amount of scenery chewing by actors eager to make a full meal of their newfound Appalachian accents. Normally this parade of clichés would be fatal, but Greenwald does one thing supremely right. Like Lily, she is consumed by the music, and she features it in long, unbroken passages – no stupid cutaways, no dumbing down. (Greenwald’s husband, David Mansfield, was the film’s musical director.) In addition to such actors as Pat Carroll and 12-year-old Emmy Rossum, who do their own singing – Rossum once sang in the children’s chorus of the Metropolitan Opera – we’re graced with appearances by Taj Mahal, Iris DeMent, and Hazel Dickens (Emmylou Harris is heard over the end credits singing “Barbara Allen”). It almost seems, at times, as if Greenwald would rather have made an all-music movie, and perhaps it would have been better if she had done so. But then we would have been deprived of seeing McTeer’s eyes widen when Lily first realizes what a time machine of sounds she has entered into. This is not just a musicologist’s dream; it’s our dream, too.
As the mobster Don Logan in Sexy Beast, Ben Kingsley is so intensely frightening that it’s as if the actor were on a personal mission to deep-six Gandhi and his loincloth once and for all. Lithe and bald-pated, Logan is like an East End Iago crossed with the Terminator. He seeks to recruit for a bank robbery a former partner-in-crime, Gal (Ray Winstone), who has retired to a villa on Spain’s Costa del Sol. From the outset, Logan can’t stand to see the man’s creature comforts: “I won’t let you be happy,” he spits. Logan has a hair-trigger paranoia; when he and Gal are driving home at night and a goat blocks their path, Logan is incensed because he wants to know why the goat is looking at him. Probably for the same reason we are: You can’t pull your eyes away. Kingsley has only about a half-hour of screen time, but if he had any more, the movie might self-immolate. Even without him, Sexy Beast – directed by Jonathan Glazer, a TV-commercial and rock-video whiz making his feature debut, and written by Louis Mellis and David Scinto with perfect pitch for the scary propulsiveness of thug lingo – is a flashy, nasty triumph. There’s even a love story whose tenderness snakes through all the corrosion. Gal and his wife, Deedee (Amanda Redman), a former porn star, are true soul mates, and the film’s one concession to sentimentality is that love is worth, if not dying for, then at least killing for.
Written and directed by Maggie Greenwald; starring Janet McTeer.
Directed by Jonathan Glazer; starring Ben Kingsley and Ray Winstone.