Published March 1, 1998
Love and Death on Long Island, directed by Richard Kwietniowski from a novel by Gilbert Adair, is not really about death. Its title puns on the name of its principal character, played by John Hurt, who is called Giles De’Ath. But it might as well have been called De’Ath in Venice, since it is all about a lonely, 60ish novelist and intellectual who falls in love with a pretty, empty-headed boy seen at a distance. Such stuff seems just embarrassing to me. Old men should not make fools of themselves with young boys—or, for that matter, with young girls—but, if they do, should at least have the grace to recognize that they have made fools out of themselves. Instead, De’Ath and Kwietniowski both continue to cherish the illusion that the former’s goatish impulses somehow amount to a grand passion of transcendent significance and that he is to be congratulated on “the discovery of beauty where no one ever thought to look for it.”
Puh-lease! This is just inverted snobbery. The fact is that practically everybody has thought to look for beauty in the teen heartthrob, Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestly), who catches the eye of poor old De’Ath. Everybody, that is, except for a few stuck-up lovers of art and literature such as De’Ath himself used to be before wandering by mistake into Ronnie’s hit, Hotpants College 2, while trying to find the latest cinematic adaptation of E.M. Forster. Why we are supposed to think of him as being more perspicacious than others of his kind because he has managed to see Ronnie through the eyes of millions of teenage girls is never made clear to us. And that he sees in the boy’s dramatic forte, which is playing the victim in assorted pathetic death tableaux, a reminder of Henry Wallis’s famous portrait of the dead poet Chatterton is just ridiculous.
Yet we are meant to sympathize with, if not to join poor De’Ath in his delusion because it is associated, bizarrely, with the overcoming of his stuffy, upper-class English technophobia. Finding that he is in love with the beautiful boy is an exhilarating self-discovery whose ramifications somehow include learning how to use the video tape recorder, the answering machine and the fax. This in turn supposedly humanizes him and cures him of his sniffiness about youth culture (he buys fan magazines and makes scrapbooks of Ronnie’s photos in them) and mindless and worthless movies like Hotpants College 2. So much for those of us who call such movies mindless and worthless!
Ronnie’s fiancée, Audrey (Fiona Loewi) first befriends De’Ath after he has seen his way to meeting Ronnie by running his shopping trolley into hers in the supermarket. He pretends that it is his god-daughter, Abigail, who is Ronnie’s big fan. Soon, however, he himself is flattering Ronnie and pretending (or, horrible thought, could he actually mean it?) that he reminds him of a young Olivier. Audrey, being rather brighter than Ronnie, soon cottons on to the reality and arranges, like a protective mother, to spirit her little boy off the island and away to visit her family before returning to L.A. De’Ath manages one last visit with Ronnie at which he declares his love. Ronnie merely puts a hand on his shoulder and leaves. De’Ath then sends him an enormously long fax reiterating the transcendent and life-transforming potential of his hot passion.
More embarrassment. Ronnie’s life, says De’Ath’s handwritten message, would have “taken a different turning if you had simply been able to open your heart to the love of another”—and that love, though rejected, will endure. Ronnie “will cherish it as a source of pride in the face of an uncaring world.” Oh dear! You’ve got to wonder if the old boy’s novels can be any good, if this is a fair sample of his prose style. Likewise, his literary criticism is almost as puerile, at least to judge from his supposedly high brow comparison of Shakespeare’s bawdy passages to Hotpants College 2. As if it were bawdiness that were the problem with Hotpants College 2 and not the bad writing, the trivial plot and the shallow characterizations. But I guess there’s no fool like an old fool.