Madness is in the eye of the audience. And in the world according to Dennis Potter, there exist a myriad of "realities" that one can inhabit. You simply have to accept the idea that one perception may be just as valid as another. That's the modus operandi of SECRET FRIENDS, a
schizophrenic think-piece concocted and directed by Potter, who does not serve his original novel Ticket to Ride very well. Lovers of deliberate obfuscation will, however, probably enjoy Potter's fling with confusion.
Welcome to the world of John (Alan Bates) who's haunted by a doppelgaenger who encourages him to kill his wife, Helen (Gina Bellman), because he's fixated on the notion that she's a whore who can't escape her sordid past. (Was his wife once a call girl or is she just another victim of John's
misogyny?) In frenetic fragments suggesting John's tortured psyche, snippets of the character's past, present and possible future collide. Often we glimpse his troubled childhood in which a stern, disciplinarian father (Colin Jeavons) and a mute mother (Rowena Cooper) cripple him psychologically.
On occasion, we spy upon Pinteresque domestic scenes including one in which the unraveling John has an affair with a family friend, Angela (Frances Barber in the film's only noteworthy performance). Sometimes, we simply sit beside John on a train to London as he journies between breakdown and
sanity while dreaming of uxoricide. By the climax, John is literally a prisoner of his fantasies; it becomes apparent that we have been witnessing the twisted imaginings of the protagonist throughout. Our view of reality has been distorted through his unique perspective.
Who is the secret friend of the title? It is the childlike essence of John--the brave, spontaneous spirit that's been oppressed by life. By the time John's troubled mind splinters into a hundred pieces, however, viewers may not care about his brutalized childhood or his career as a botanical
artist or his warped alter-ego visions. As the narrative glides by in lightning bursts of memories followed by drawn-out present-day delusions, the stream of consciousness doesn't illuminate John's condition. He remains a cipher. Instead of being drawn inside the man's pathetic madness, most
viewers will become frustrated by the flashy cinematic techniques and bored by the realization that John is less a character than the filmmaker's own secret friend, an excuse to show off his cleverness.
Shucking off the conventions of traditional narrative filmmaking is a tricky proposition unless the storyline is complex enough to challenge viewers' emotions as well as their intellects. Having a multi-faceted character or two for the audience to hold onto is a wise precaution to take; SECRET
FRIENDS does not carry the weight of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE or DREAMSCAPE or even the 1940s thriller THE LOCKET because the filmmaker has focused all his attention on the technique and not enough on delineating in depth the protagonist's skewed perception of reality.
Unlike "Pennies from Heaven" or "The Singing Detective," two Potter masterworks, the paranoid fantasy on tap is a nightmare that neither frightens nor involves. Potter's carefully thought out, worked-over descent into bedlam is a monument to cryptic philosophizing. That unsatisfying attempt to get
inside John's head only takes us as far as Potter's brain, which no doubt clicked away with excitement as he threw film conventions and caution to the wind. It is an excitement not likely to be shared by those trying to make sense of SECRET FRIENDS. (Violence, adult situations.)
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- Released: 1992
- Rating: NR
- Review: Madness is in the eye of the audience. And in the world according to Dennis Potter, there exist a myriad of "realities" that one can inhabit. You simply have to accept the idea that one perception may be just as valid as another. That's the modus operandi… (more)