Monday, September 20, 2004

Man Dancin'

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 September 2004 at Loews Copley Place #1 (Boston Film Festival)

The Glasgow of Man Dancin' is a depressing place; as Jimmy Kerrigan (Alex Ferns) returns there after a nine year prison term in Northern Ireland, the city seems rotted, hollow, and dirty. There are large industrial structures with no sign of activity, and when he walks into a tavern, even the blind guy recognizes him immediately. Nothing, one gets the sense, has changed, and it's no wonder Jimmy wants to serve out his parole and then maybe emigrate to a warmer, more prosperous place.

The interesting thing about this story is that while Jimmy found God in prison, it's initially a private faith. Jimmy just wants to look after his brother (who has become a junkie in the ensuing decade), visit his bedridden mother in the nursing home, find work and save some money. However, the priest (Tom Georgeson) who was supposed to be placing Jimmy in an anger management class notices that Jimmy did drama in prison (it was that or basket-weaving) and instead elects to cast the ex-con in the church's passion play. All well and good, except that Jimmy's mother always asks him to read to her, and this one day there's naught but a bible, and Jimmy gets a rather different impression of Jesus than the one being portrayed in the play.

In the Q&A afterward, director Norman Stone made no bones about the debt this movie owes to Jesus of Montreal; though I haven't seen that film, the premises are basically the same - people putting on a passion play find their lives paralleling the last days of Christ's. Some may find it to be a bit of a stretch to offer a former gunrunner as a Christ figure, but I think that oversimplifies Jimmy. His message isn't primarily religious, but more down to earth - he connects with the rabble-rousing Jesus, the one who had scorn for tax collectors and tyrants, and his oratory focuses more on taking control of one's life than putting one's faith in God, which doesn't go over so well with the gangsters Jimmy used to work for.

I liked it, though. Though the structure of this film comes from a religious source, the story isn't limited to any particular faith. It is, basically, about a guy who wants to make the world, or at least his corner of it, a better place, inspires others to do so, and collides with the forces who profit from misery. Jimmy's not perfect, but he does his best.

A big part of why we like Jimmy is the actor playing him, Alex Ferns. Not (yet) well-known in the United States, Alex spent a couple years as a popular villain on the long-running soap EastEnders, and makes use of his boxer's physique well here. Even if he has put his past behind him, he still looks like a thug, and one wonders if his newfound passion will fly out of control.

Ferns is ably supported by the rest of the cast, including Cas Harkins as Jimmy's brother Terry, Tam White as "Johnny Bus-Stop", a one-time pop star now old, blind, and playing on corners for beer money, and Kenneth Cranham as the corrupt detective on the payroll of gangster Donnie McGlone (James Cosmo). Making the cop and the gangster physically similar is a clever (if intentional) move. The Mary Magdalene surrogate is played by Jenny Foulds with pretty-but-grimy attitude.

While talking with the festival audience, the director made some unnecessary apologies for how Scottish folks talk and his worries that Americans wouldn't understand the dialogue, referencing the annoying subtitles on Ken Loach's Sweet Sixteen, and the remnants of a subplot that had a great deal removed in the editing stage involving the dead sister of one of Jimmy's old mates. Mr. Stone implied that he may just excise it altogether by the time the movie is released on DVD in the US. I hope that's not the case; it makes sense if you're paying attention and gives depth to a supporting character. I can see where those might be a problem for those who sort of half-watch

So far, I do't know if Man Dancin' has a US distributor, and it likely won't see a theatrical release anyway - Stone claimed it would just be a vanity release and he feels an obligation to the folks who funded the movie. It's worth a look when it arrives on video, if you happen to spot a copy squeezed between bigger releases.

No comments: