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R: ARCHIVE, S: REVIEWS, D: 06/12/1997, B: Tom Meek,

Culture vulture

Mike Nichols brings life to Shawn's Mourner

by Tom Meek

THE DESIGNATED MOURNER. Directed by David Hare. Written by Wallace Shawn, based on his play. With Mike Nichols, Miranda Richardson, and David de Keyser. A First Look Pictures release. At the Kendall Square.

Wallace Shawn's moody stage piece makes its artful transition to celluloid with fantastic results: it's dark, edgy, even enlightening. But the real draw here is the appearance of veteran director Mike Nichols (The Graduate and The Birdcage), who ventures back into performance for the first time since he was part of the infamous Nichols-May comedy team in the 1960s.


Also, an interview with Wallace Shawn.


Nichols's Jack is a bloated portrait of contempt as he recalls the events of his recent past. He lethargically, and in excruciating detail, chronicles his tumultuous marriage to Judy (Miranda Richardson) and his adore-despise relationship with his father-in-law, Howard (David de Keyser), a revered and politically outspoken poet. They exist in a fictitious province where art commands power and Jack covets his spousal connections beyond their conventional value.

The action, or lack of it, takes place on a single minimalist stage, from which the three characters starkly convey their thoughts and memories through direct address to the camera, with virtually no interaction. The Designated Mourner is essentially a spoken-word exercise, and who better to architect such a production than Shawn, whose performance in Louis Malle's My Dinner with Andre, which he co-wrote, made pure dialogue so riveting.

The crux of Shawn's examination is the valuation of high culture within society -- which, as Jack dutifully reports, is split into two camps: the highbrows and the lowbrows. Judy and Howard obviously belong to the former; Jack sits unsatisfactorily in the middle, a failed scholar whose marital bonds have not bolstered his social standing to the degree he would have liked. Rather, they've exposed him for what he is: a poser and a hanger-on.

Since the characters don't interact, the dramatic tension comes from external sources. The most recent form of government in the ever-morphing state of Shawn's piece is an increasingly repressive regime that has begun a violent crackdown on dissidents and freethinkers. Artists are being systematically assassinated. The Nazi-like extermination and pressure for conformity is chillingly Orwellian, and it creates a divide between Jack and his in-laws. As a man in limbo, he is afforded the opportunity to choose between his beloved intelligentsia and life in a totalitarian universe. It's a swift, sober instant when Jack, in an act of self-justified cowardice, renounces his highbrow aspirations and enters the miserable rat race as a mere lowbrow.

As a hero Jack is hard to like. He's a self-loathing, selfish narcissist who takes advantage of dirty, quick pleasures wherever he can find them, most of which involve his suddenly finding his dick in his hand. His egotism takes him close to the smug, haughty nature of Judy and Howard; where he differs from them, beyond his intellectual shortcomings, is that he's introspective, vulnerable, and honest. How many people have the balls to admit that when it comes to a venerated piece of literature, they just don't get it? The irony of Shawn's cultural essay is that, as a piece of art, it's the very bane of its own existence. As a result Mourner teeters dangerously between hypocrisy and pretension. Shawn sets us up for a perverse revelation, but as the film swaggers on it becomes increasingly trite and absurd. Fortunately (and inadvertently?) its lightness provides balance and prevents its grim circumstances from caving in on its fragile, but witty text.

The direction by David Hare is a non-issue, though the kinetic lighting schemes employed by cinematographer Oliver Stapleton keep things visually stimulating. But this is a film about talk, and talk is cheap. Mourner succeeds because of Nichols's utterly compelling performance. Not only does he make Jack engaging, he makes you hang on his every word with his casual inflections and well-timed, nonchalant yawns, which add a piquant dimension to Shawn's dicy dialogue. Richardson, ordinarily a dramatic force to reckon with, is used sparingly -- which works to the film's advantage, because her Judy is so detached and glazed over that she frequently saps Nichols's energy. Shawn's bleak, provocative world may not be everyone's cup of tea, but there is an abundance of pleasure in Nichols's robust stage presence.