Published June 1, 1997
For just a moment, about half way through, Hollow Reed by Angela Pope looks as if it is going to face a difficult problem honestly. Talk about suspense! But just as, when it looks as if the hero of a movie like Con Air is done for, you know he can’t be, so here you know in your heart that Ms Pope is going to take the easy way out. And of course she does—by making the one major character who is a heterosexual male (Jason Flemyng) into the bad guy and heap all the guilt of the film’s sticky situation on his head. To show a grown man with a compulsive streak ( “There’s a right way and a wrong way of doing everything,” he says) striking and injuring a 9 year old child is the cheapest and easiest way in the world of getting an audience to take sides against him.
The boy is Oliver Wyatt (Sam Bould) whose father, Martyn Wyatt (Martin Donovan), has come out as a homosexual and divorced his wife, Oliver’s mother, Hannah (Joely Richardson). Full of bitterness over the break, Hannah has since taken up with Frank Donally (Mr Flemyng), a macho type who makes her happy but secretly torments and beats Oliver when she is not around. Martyn, a doctor, eventually figures out what is happening to him, but has a hard time persuading his embittered ex-wife that her new fancy man is a child abuser. So he sues for custody of the child, thereby endangering his relationship with his own lover, Tom Dixon (Ian Hart), whom he asks to move out of his flat in order to increase his chances of getting custody.
It is an interesting situation and one which, as I say, almost makes a serious point—when, that is, it presents the situations of the two parents as mirror images of each other. “I want you both,” says Martyn to Tom. “I’m afraid I will louse it up and lose you both.” But of course this could equally well be said by Hannah to Frank, and in fact she does louse it up and lose them both. Shortly after this, we see Martyn shouting at a terrified little Ollie about their upcoming hearing in the custody battle: “You’ve got to tell them it’s Frank!” For just a moment we see in the child’s fear the parallels between Frank and Martyn.
It doesn’t last. For Ms Pope is not interested in the way in which both parents try to delude themselves, as so many parents do these days, that what they want is also what’s best for their child, and that their sexual gratification can be obtained without damage to their child. Martyn’s breaking up his marriage in order to pursue his pleasures with the comely, gamine-like Bob Dylan fan, Tom, is in many ways as damaging to poor Oliver as his mother’s shacking up with a sadist. But Ms Pope focuses on only one side of this equation. The homosexual Daddy is wholly admirable, the violent fancy-man, Frank, wholly despicable and the mommy-in-the-middle a well-intentioned weakling who, we must hope, will finally grow a backbone and kick the bastard out.
The basic premiss of the film, to present the child’s safety from heterosexual male violence as depending on dad and dad’s boyfriend, depends partly on the stereotyping of gays as wimps. At one point, we are forced to watch, along with an appalled Hannah, a wiry but not particularly imposing Frank beating the stuffing out of the hulking but unresisting Martyn in front of his son. Of course it is a good tactic at that moment for Martyn to present himself as another victim of Frank’s violent tendencies, but we should be careful about giving him quite so much credit for subtlety when the whole tendency of the film is to sell us on the well-worn feminist belief that violence is a kind of disease which strikes only heterosexual males, and may, indeed, be endemic in their condition as such— “sex gone bad,” as a naïve Freudian once put it.
So, if you are a heterosexual male—or if you think more highly of the kind than Ms Pope does—there does not seem to be much reason for you to go see this movie.