Published April 1, 1999
Like A Merry War, the adaptation of George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying that came out last year, Metroland, directed by Philip Saville and adapted by Adrian Hodge from the novel by Julian Barnes, in the end boils down to a pretty banal discovery of the obvious. For some reason, perhaps the historical accident of Britain’s class system or the public school ethos that does so much to sustain it, upper-middle-class Englishmen like Orwell and Barnes retain the ability to be bowled over by the news that people tend to marry and have children as a natural part of their adult lives. To these public school boys, the state of being single and having a few good male friends, mostly from school, and as many girlfriends as possible who are willing to provide casual sex, must seem like the state of nature. Marriage and children, by contrast, are merely the means by which an alien and rather distasteful system, smacking of the worst and most tasteless excesses of the lower middle classes and invented by those fabulous beasts called “capitalists,” provides for a new generation of middle managers.
True, both films end happily with former artistes and scourges of the bourgeoisie accepting their lot in life as husbands and fathers. This is all to the good, but why should they expect to be congratulated for it? We are introduced to Chris (Christian Bale) and Marion (Emily Watson) and their young family (baby daughter Amy) only in order that they may be almost torn apart by the intervention of the loathsome Tony (Lee Ross), who fills Chris’s head with dreams of a return to bachelorhood and independence. When the family is put back together the circularity of the process does not please. Wouldn’t the same purpose have been served if our author had thought in the beginning to tell his hero: “Get used to it!” In fact he does tell him this. Chris himself recognizes that the kind of fantasies Tony conjures up are natural—and are fantasies. And yet he insists, or almost insists, on attempting to live them out anyway. To be sure, such weak-mindedness not uncommon in married men, but unless it is accompanied by something to make it more interesting than in its native state it is, it is hardly worthy a whole movie.
Or so it seems to me. There is some fleeting interest sparked by Miss Watson in the role of the waspy Marion, whose wit and sarcasm constantly deflate Chris’s tendency to pretension and self-delusion but also hide a secret of her own that comes to us as a dubious surprise towards the end. But we do not see nearly enough of her, while we do see much too much of the ghastly Tony who, even for a radical veteran of the 1960s in 1977, seems far too bad to be true. I also don’t believe that Tony is a poet, though he is said to be one. It’s not that poets cannot be quite as bad as Tony is but rather that, insofar as they are poets, we should expect them to be bad in more interesting ways. Nor, I think, would even the most louche or self-consciously radical of poets in 1977 have cultivated an interest in punk rock.
Right smack dab in the middle of this picture, Saville places an extended flashback to Chris’s student days in Paris in the “revolutionary” year of 1968, when he has a passionate affair with the stunning Annick (Elsa Zylberstein). The sentimental glow cast upon this episode by Saville, never mind Chris, is embarrassing, and the hint of why Chris could never have married Annick is left undeveloped. It is better and easier for the filmmakers to pretend along with Chris that, somehow, she really wanted to be the mistress of an impecunious English photographer and would have regarded marriage, as he did, as a kind of betrayal of radical principles. But she is too interesting a person to be so boringly political (Chris, alas, is not), and so her character and the scenes in which she figures so prominently are merely incoherent.