All reviews were originally written for The Columbus Guardian weekly newspaper between 1992 and 1994 and DreamWatch Magazine 1995 to 1997. All copyrights owned by the author.
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
The Cement Garden
It isn't unusual for a teenage boy to go through a period of intense self-absorption. But the kid in The Cement Garden is a little more confused than the average 15-year-old headbanger. Jack (Andrew Robertson) is an extremely alienated, cross-dressing, narcissistic onanist who's buried his mother in the basement and is becoming incestuously involved with his sister. The kid is so underdeveloped in the old self-esteem category that he might as well be a Pauly Shore fan.
Unfortunately, this film version of Ian McEwan's highly regarded novel never rises above the ponderous neurosis of its main character. There's enough footage of Jack jerking off to send most viewers running to the nearest optometrist, but the movie comes up short on the psychological patterns underlying England's most dysfunctional family this side of Buckingham Palace. Cement Garden offers a lot of well-composed images of industrial waste heaps and bad architecture, resulting in a collection of gritty pictures that barely suggests the mental damage lurking inside the characters. (Writer-director Andrew Birkin presents himself as a protege of Stanley Kubrick, which may be why the film could be appropriately retitled A Clockwork Boring.)
What works in The Cement Garden are the performances by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Sinead Cusack. As the mother of this disaffected brood, Cusack's performance balances nicely between strong feelings for her family and an almost complete inability to comprehend her son's mental state. Unfortunately, she dies from a mysterious illness midway through the movie, and Jack's sister (Gainsbourg) assumes the maternal role. Perhaps this is why the two siblings become so involved with each other. (Then again, perhaps not. The only thing the movie makes clear about her character is that she's instantly orgasmic.)
Much of the novel focuses on the world inside Jack's head. Most of the movie, however, is concerned with exteriors. The director missed the point, and the whole production turns into a bad comedy of pathological rituals and half-baked obsessions. No pun intended, but The Cement Garden repeatedly comes up empty handed.