Set in Pittsburgh and England's Fens--the low, flat marshlands where East Anglia meets the North Sea--WATERLAND sadly but perhaps inevitably fails to measure up to the acclaimed novel upon which it's based.
Tom Crick (Jeremy Irons) is a Pittsburgh high-school history teacher haunted by a tragic past. Mary (Sinead Cusack), his childhood sweetheart and wife of many years, is an increasingly unstable woman on the brink of madness. When she blithely announces at a dinner party that she's pregnant, Tom is
duly stunned--this, he well knows, is impossible. As a result of the crisis in his marriage, painful memories from Tom's childhood begin to resurface, further disrupting the delicate balance of his life. When one of his students, Mathew Price (Ethan Hawke), questions the relevance of history to
their lives, Tom, in an effort to bring history alive for his students, begins to recount his own traumatic childhood during WWII.
In a flashback, we are introduced to young Tom (Grant Warnock) and Mary (newcomer Lena Heady, who bears a remarkable resemblance to Cusack), and Tom's elder brother, Dick (David Morrissey), a simpleton. Both brothers are infatuated with Mary, but it's Tom with whom the girl has been spending
secret, passionate afternoons in an abandoned windmill.
Then, in a fantasy flashback-within-a-flashback, the adult Tom enables his students to travel literally back in time to the Fens of 1911, a time when his maternal grandfather, Ernest Atkinson (Stewart Richman), owned and operated a famous brewery. When Atkinson lost a bid for Parliament, he took
revenge by concocting a special batch of highly potent beer and dispersing it to the locals; in the resulting chaos, the brewery was burned to the ground, although Atkinson did manage to save one crate of his beer from the flames.
By 1922, the Atkinson mansion has become an asylum for war veterans. Atkinson, a broken man on the verge of madness, has retreated from the world. He is cared for by his faithful daughter Helen (Siri Neal), spawning rumors of incest. It's here that Helen meets Tom's father, a vet named Henry Crick
(Peter Postlethwaite). They marry but, after giving birth to her second son, Tom, Helen succumbs to influenza. Before she dies, she gives Dick a key to a trunk in the attic, to be opened on his eighteenth birthday.
Back to the original flashback, where young Tom realizes that his elder brother has been courting Mary. When Mary announces that she is pregnant, Tom suspects that Dick is the father, though Mary protests that they never consummated their relationship; nonetheless, she is scared of the older boy
and his reaction to the news. Shortly thereafter, Freddie Parr (Callum Dixon), a schoolmate of Tom's, is found floating in the river. Mary confesses that, afraid of implicating Tom, she had lied to Dick, telling him that Freddie was the father. The death is deemed a suicide by local authorities,
but Tom, who's already spotted the marks on Freddie's neck and a suspicious beer bottle floating in the water, knows better.
When Tom confronts Dick with the truth, the latter goes haywire and forces Tom to read the letter in the trunk; it's from Atkinson, who, it turns out, is not Dick's grandfather but his father. (The trunk also contained twelve bottles of the infamous beer.) Now even more distraught, Dick speeds
away on his motorbike, climbs a barge and dives into the water, swimming out to sea; presumably, he's never seen again (a point the film fails to clarify). Mary, wracked with guilt, visits a local midwife and undergoes a botched abortion, rendering her infertile. The old hag hands Tom a slop
bucket, warning him not to look at the aborted fetus when he throws it into the river--it's bad luck. Tom looks.
Back in present-day Pittsburgh, Tom returns home and discovers that Mary has stolen a baby. She claims to have received him from God, who, it turns out, left him at the local Shop and Save. Acting quickly, Tom manages to return the infant to its hysterical mother without getting his wife arrested
in the process. Shortly thereafter he's forced into early retirement for having deviated from the proscribed curriculum. As Price, who's warmed to Tom, points out, he's been "telling stories" for himself, not for the benefit of his students. Mary leaves Tom, who soon returns to the Fens, where he
sees her strolling in the distance.
Gorgeously photographed, particularly the flashback sequences, WATERLAND strives to be an evocative mood piece. Occasionally it succeeds, but more often it's enervating and uninvolving. This is particularly disappointing considering director Stephen Gyllenhaal's impressive work on two recent TV
movies, "A Killing in a Small Town" and "Paris Trout," the latter adapted from the acclaimed book by Pete Dexter.
In Graham Swift's highly idiosyncratic 1983 novel, Tom and Mary are in their mid-fifties; given the fact that they were adolescents during WWII, this screen adaptation would have to be set in the early 70s to account for the fortysomething Irons and Cusack--a point the film never clarifies. But
that's a minor quibble. The film's most glaring fault is the fantasy element. Even though we're not supposed to take it at face value, the sight of Tom's contemporary students cavorting with the locals in a small English town circa 1911 is ludicrous. Worse still, these teens are utterly charmless.
Ethan Hawke (DEAD POETS SOCIETY, WHITE FANG), in particular, substitutes bad-boy posturing for acting.
Credit is nevertheless due to screenwriter Peter Prince for his ambitious attempt to adapt Swift's novel. And Sinead Cusack, the daughter of famed actor Cyril Cusack and wife of Jeremy Irons, is superb as the adult Mary, easily overshadowing her husband's bland central performance.
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- Released: 1992
- Rating: R
- Review: Set in Pittsburgh and England's Fens--the low, flat marshlands where East Anglia meets the North Sea--WATERLAND sadly but perhaps inevitably fails to measure up to the acclaimed novel upon which it's based. Tom Crick (Jeremy Irons) is a Pittsburgh high-sc… (more)