Guinevere is Audrey Wells’ debut in the director’s chair. An established screenwriter (The Truth About Cats and Dogs, Inspector Gadget), Wells can be wildly imaginative and original; she also has a knack for snappy dialogue. Some of this skill is evident in Guinevere, but it isn’t enough to overcome the fundamentally flawed script and Wells’ lack of directorial and editing discipline.
The movie is a romance and only the two lovers are full blown characters. Plenty of good movies have been made on that premise, but in Guinevere, the heroine, Harper Sloane (SarahPauley) is twenty and her lover, Connie (Stephen Rea) is older than her mother, Deborah (Jean Smart). With only two developed characters, the imbalance in age that is the subject of the film becomes an imbalance in the movie that spins it out of control.
The character of Connie is the principal achievement of Guinevere. A photographer, Connie’s career is on the skids. (He meets Harper working his camera at her sister’s wedding.) His alcohol problem, his temperamental and somewhat paranoid leftist politics, and his predilection for very young women have blocked his once promising career. Connie has become a serial seducer, proceeding through a series of relationships with vulnerable girls which start with him in the role of teacher, father, guru – refuge and support for the insecure and ingenuous. Once established in a relationship, Connie is not beyond sending his lovers out to work to pay the rent. Connie is a heart-breaker.
But, if the repeated pattern of his relationships is painful and rather sad, Connie is more complex than a mere exploiter. He enters his relationships with tenderness and caring. He insists that his girlfriends take on some serious self-education and take up a creative artistic endeavor. He knows how to give a girl the best birthday party she ever had and how to imbue her with self-confidence. Wells has written a rounded and complex character and Stephen Rea’s performance breathes life into it.
A love story needs two, though, and with the premise that the younger girl is an empty slate to be drawn upon, there is a real danger that her character on the screen will not have equal weight in interest or complexity. That’s what happens in Guinevere, despite the skills and charm of Sarah Polley. Polley, a great beauty, manages to sink down into herself in the early scenes, expressing her deflated self-image as the younger and less favored daughter in what turns out to be a seriously dysfunctional family. She so dislikes herself that she gets Connie to leave her out of the wedding pictures. He does get a candid portrait of her which brings out her beauty and that is what leads her to him. Promise is in the air.
But Wells doesn’t make the courtship convincing. Though Harper’s neediness provides the leverage, Wells fails to fill in enough detail so that we believe Harper would let down her reserve and fall for this guy. Plying with liquor may lead to sex; relationships need to be better motivated.
Connie makes fun of the fact that Harper doesn’t have a single opinion, and Wells doesn’t give her one to have, but she makes Harper a near-qualifier for Harvard Law School. She can’t have it both ways; it overstretches credulity and the character starts to fall apart from the conflicts in its construction. Harper’s scenes with one of her contemporaries, a device to allow her to express herself about what is happening to her, smack of naive high school silliness. It doesn’t ring true.
Polley can do most anything, from the shrinking flower to the dancing, blossoming woman, from the naif to the understanding and supportive partner. And Wells lets her do it all, whether or not it works for the characterization or the film. The solo dance sequence in Connie’s studio, for example, seems intended to express the flowering of the woman as she has grown in confidence with her new affair, but the dance is obviously professionally choreographed and is totally lacking in any sense of spontaneity that would give it charm and conviction. It would more appropriately be performed in a cage suspended above a noisy bar.
The mother’s role is narrowly written, but Jean Smart takes it and runs, scoring her own touchdown. Though there are some good lines in it, she can’t save a scene of the family at the dinner table playing the fortune-cookie game. The scene is awkward and unpleasant; the new information it adds is only peripheral to what is important in the film. It ends with an intended zinger of a line from Harper that again seems out of character, unearned by Wells. The scene feels like it was written for another movie and dropped in here because Wells likes her own writing.
But Wells has her moments, too. When Deborah comes to Connie’s studio to confront him about his relationship with her daughter, she knows exactly how find his vulnerability, verbally cut him into little pieces, chew him up, and leave him emotionally bleeding. If Connie were not such a fully drawn character, this dressing down wouldn’t have the powerful impact that it does. The success of the scene, with some genuine adult conflict, brings into relief what is missing from the rest of the movie.
Wells underlines her weaker scenes with music meant to add the emotional intensity that is otherwise missing. But the music highlights the weakness, not the emotion, and the banal score by Cristophe Beck makes Muzak sound like Mozart.
The denouement, after a time break of four years, is an act of writing and directorial desperation. Wells (like Spielberg at his worst ) tacks on a superfluous coda with the whole string of Connie’s past girls gathered at his studio as he is dying, presumably from cirrhosis. Harper then verbally leads him on the road to his end, lined with girls from his past in a shimmering white light, all of which Wells provides visually to Harper’s voice-over. A film that might have survived with a little integrity drowns in its own silly soapsuds.