Here is the great enigma of pop, the great subversive mystery: Shallow prettiness, achieved without effort or style, may strike a susceptible soul as the most profound beauty in the world. So perhaps it’s no surprise that a crusty English highbrow writer, Giles De’Ath (John Hurt), the hero of Love and Death on Long Island, falls in love with an image – the face of an American actor, a teen idol named Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley). But it certainly comes as a surprise to Giles. De’Ath (the second syllable is emphasized, but you may read the name as “death”) is a London widower, the author of many distinguished and unreadable tomes (we get a whiff of classicism covered with mold). A creature of routine, De’Ath is entombed in a wood-paneled house; he regards the world outside with hauteur and fear. Going to the movies, he wanders into the wrong auditorium in a multiplex – the one playing the crass American comedy “Hotpants College 2” – and is about to leave in a rage when Ronnie Bostock appears as a waiter in a fast-food joint. De’Ath’s astonished face, caught in the reflected light of the screen, suggests a man ravished from soul to bowels by an emotion he has never experienced before. The joke, of course, is that Jason Priestley – sideburns, full wavy hair, rotten-angel smile – looks like a second-rate teen fave from about 1954. He’s not even that good-looking. But De’Ath becomes obsessed; he rants about a beauty of classical permanence. In a more practical vein, he starts a scrapbook and hides movie-fan magazines in his house as if they were the vilest pornography. He even rushes to eastern Long Island, where Ronnie lives with his girlfriend (Fiona Leowi), and turns himself into a seducer of considerable guile.
Writer-director Richard Kwietniowski has never made a feature before, but this debut effort is a triumph, a buoyant and elegant achievement – romantic and ruminative yet always precise, a comedy of longing propelled by a strong current of satirical observation. Kwietniowski plays the most beautiful effects off silence; he dwells on the baffled pause and strained hesitation. And yet the movie is never fussy or embarrassing; it finds the element of audacity in the love-struck aging artist and stays close to it. De’Ath may be a creep, but he’s also a true hero. He’s pulled by his obsession into the common life, and suffers the humiliation of getting things wrong. A video store is like a foreign planet to him; a TV set is an instrument of terror and wonder. The formality of English manners offers an extraordinary advantage to a nuanced actor like Hurt. With the slightest change of intonation – the verbal equivalent of a raised eyebrow – he suggests reserves of fear and rage. His sudden grin when he begins to get close to Ronnie is so flagrantly happy that one almost wants him to succeed. Everything Hurt does seems fresh, fully felt.
Love and Death on Long Island is based on a novel by an extremely witty British film critic named Gilbert Adair. I haven’t been able to get hold of the book, but I would guess from the movie alone that Adair was playing with the themes of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice – examining them through the lens of Nabokov’s Lolita, in which an English writer is mesmerized by both a beautiful American nymphet and the siren song of American vulgarity. This connection alone is a perverse joke, since Nabokov’s loathing of Mann’s novella is famous. In the movie, the joke of American commonness works both ways. Ronnie Bostock’s pizza-parlor and locker-room movies (which Kwietniowski re-creates with loving care) are appalling, but the ordinary folk whom De’Ath meets on Long Island are decent and friendly in a way that the sarcastic Londoners are not. Ronnie himself is an okay guy – no great brain or talent, but no stuck-up monster either. He’s moved by what he takes to be De’Ath’s interest in his mediocre movie career. Jason Priestley’s performance is on the bland side, but he has one great moment. It is the look on his face – the shot is prolonged for what seems an eternity – when the Englishman proclaims, in the Long Island hash house Chez D’Irv, his undying love for the young actor. At that moment, Jason Priestley’s Ronnie really does become someone worthy of eternal love.