Published May 1, 1997
The Designated Mourner, written by Wallace Shawn and directed by David Hare, is chiefly remarkable for the fact that it shows Mike Nichols can act. Or at least overact. It’s hard to tell if it is Shawn’s overheated writing, Hare’s spare, intense directing or Nichols’s own natural hamminess, but the overall effect is rather like that of one of those Russian plays in which, as P.G. Wodehouse would say, grandfather hangs himself in the barn in the third act. This is a movie about despair which, in spite of some interesting and some funny moments, doesn’t really work.
Part of the problem is that despair is comic when it is not your own. It is essentially a form of self-dramatisation. Why should you think that the human condition is particularly burdensomeon you? We all have to put up with it, and those who moan too much about it simply want to gain a special sympathy to which they are not entitled by putting on a show of suffering. On top of that, we have in this particular film the problem of Hamlet (another story of despair and self-dramatisation) of the objective correlative. It is obvious that Nichols’s character, Jack, has been through the wringer, but we don’t see any of the bad stuff happening. There is no dramatic representation of a harrowing experience. It is all just talk.
So Nichols’s Jack, Miranda Richardson as his wife, Judy, and David de Keyser as Judy’s father, Howard, sit next to each other, as it were for a panel discussion or a TV talk show, and take turns emoting to the camera about their intertangled lives. But essentially this is Nichols’s one-man show. Judy has a few good lines but is not a well-developed character, and Howard is more a symbol than a person. A rather irascible poet, he stands for the high culture with which Jack has a love-hate relationship. Jack both envies and despises Howard, but he always orients himself with respect to him. Describing himself as “a student of English literature who went downhill from there,” he knows enough to know that there is something in the poetry of John Donne, for example, to be enjoyed. Unlike Howard, however, he is unable to enjoy it.
This seems to be the central fact of his life, but, with the best will in the world, we only have Jack’s word for the inner torment it causes him. At no point do we see anything actually happening to him. Jack is anguished, we discover, because of a sense of cultural loss which may or may not have a physical counterpart in some scenes of violence he more or less vaguely alludes to. But this sense of loss is not quite what it seems. To Jack, poetry is what makes us human— without it man is nothing but a “zoo animal”, or “a large balloon” with animal appendages. Or so he says. In fact, it strikes us as a merely second-hand opinion. It is much easier to believe that his lack of what he calls “enjoyment” indicates that he neither knows nor cares anything for poetry.
Really, his anguish seems to be over the fact that he is insufficiently anguished by his sense of loss—whether it is cultural or physical.It is an idea, of course, though his saying it here, and his wallowing in the sense of tragic loss that goes with it always seems to have ulterior motives. He is dramatizing history (“Where are they?” he asks his imaginary listener about the past and the future. “They’re certainly not here”) in order to dramatize himself. Paradoxically, he also imagines himself strangling his “self”—conceived of as a separate entity, to death. For, by a similar paradox, the death of poetry—with Howard’s passing, he says, “everyone on earth who could read John Donne was now dead”—comes as a huge liberation to him. It’s like the death of God to Nietzsche.
Chiefly he feels liberated because he is now free to acknowledge that he is a lowbrow. This is to give too much dignity to essentially journalistic categories, like that of the “lowbrow”, as well as to poetry itself which, however humanizing a force it may be, is not the same as God. Moreover, the film itself dissolves into a succession of confusing images—dream- like pictures of sickness and violence and death which produce emotion in Jack but which are never given a context into which they can fit. By this point in the film our attempts to care about these characters as people have been thwarted by their elusiveness. I confess I fell asleep through mere indifference to them, though I gathered that Jack was continuing to play up the animal motif.
His uncle, for instance, who sounds much more interesting than Jack himself does, says that all their family are rats. They can’t help it, that’s just the way they are. “The skills a rat possesses don’t work in water, so avoid getting wet,” says the uncle, laboriously developing his trope out of the ancient catchphrase about the sinking ship. Jack, it seems, is a sentimentalist: a rat who will always desert the sinking ship (poetry, Judy, Howard) but will always look back at it fondly and weep for its loss—or for his own despair at having to be a rat and live on without it. Unfortunately, this is not an emotion that involves us.