The Designated Mourner

on May 02, 1997 by Melissa Morrison
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   Mike Nichols is a wonderful actor. Of the three who perform this spare cinematic version--a reading, really, of Wallace Shawn's play-- Nichols, the eminent director, is the one who takes the starch out of the words, reeling off Shawn's literate, elegant phrases as if he's just come up with them himself. He plays Jack, a "failed" writer in some unnamed metropolis. Miranda Richardson ("The Evening Star") is his wife, Judy, the daughter of Howard (David de Keyser), an intellectual. Jack is also the designated mourner of the title, mourning the death of highbrow culture.
   Shawn treats this death literally: Although the play starts out documenting what might be the standard anxieties of upper-middle-class white urbanites, it suddenly leaves "New Yorker" territory when revolution breaks out and the city's aesthetes--in Jack's definition, those who not only read John Donne but understand him--are systematically murdered by the new regime. The starkness of director David Hare's presentation, three actors sitting at a table, seems to taunt viewers with making the same distinction about themselves: Can they watch such a movie and find it stimulating without the requisite explosions, quick editing cuts, even costume changes to provide visual interest?
   The answer is no. In the transfer from stage to screen, the electricity of live performances is lost, while the confining set and lengthy closeups are claustrophobic (at times inspiring rather cruel examinations of the actors' faces). And, although Nichols is a natural with his lines, Richardson is less successful, probably because she is required to say things like, "as if their last drops of perfume were being squeezed into the air." Still, in the terms set up by Shawn, one wonders if this film was meant not so much as entertainment but as the preservation of an increasingly elite art form, theatre.    Starring Mike Nichols, Miranda Richardson and David de Keyser. Directed by David Hare. Written by Wallace Shawn. Produced by Donna Grey and David Hare. A First Look release. Drama. Rated R for some language. Running time: 94 min. Screened at the Berlin fest.
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