Roads Not Taken (2020) ** Berlinale 2020

February 27th, 2020
Author: Meredith Taylor

Wir/Dir: Sally Potter | UK Drama 92′

Making mental illness the main subject of a feature film is a dangerous gamble. And Sally Potter fails to pull it off in this tortured and disappointing melodrama which is neither moving nor pleasant to watch, making the illness a dramatic device in a story sadly lacking subtle nuance and delicacy. To make matters worse the affliction in question has turned the main character into a state of near catatonia and his close family members are forced into painful efforts to communicate with him, even at the best of times. This situation will be familiar to many of us and certainly doesn’t make for decent entertainment, and at times even feels more like exploitation.

In a noisy New York backwater, Leo is bedridden and needs constant chivying from his daughter (Elle Fanning) who is the best thing about this claustrophobic film. His ex wife Laura Linney also offers a breath of fresh air when she arrives in the hospital during routine tests. But she turns out to be bitter and belittling towards him, not an easy performance to watch, but at least it breathes life into this airless trial.

The problem here is not only the lack of delicacy but the under-developed characterisation. Leo – by dint of his dementia-like illness is basically a cypher. Fanning, a loving and genuine person whose well-concealed anger at losing more and more work, is conveyed in a really convincing way, and she gives the best performance her. In sun-filled Mexican flashbacks we meet Leo’s long lost love Dolores (Salma Hayek) who Linney then informs us is ‘the one that got away’. These flashbacks are interwoven into the storyline which flips backwards and forwards between the US and Mexico, but so frequently they almost destabilise the cohesion of the storyline. A third strand sees him floating around in Greece as a writer who has lost his mojo, and is desperately trying to hit on two young female travellers. Am echoing urban-fuelling soundscape is supposed to represent the noise in Leo’s head due to his inner turmoil and he expresses this to a the Greek bartender who asks if he’s taking the day off: “The writer is always working, my friend”he responds. As a troubled artist he is certainly up there with the best, if not the most intriguing.

There is clearly some sort of reference to Greek tragedy here with Bardem, who emerges in these flashbacks as a rather self-focused and selfish man who by admission has abandoned his first daughter on account of the noise she made when he was trying to write. Performances and production values-wise the film is decent but as a piece of entertainment it gets ‘nul points’.

Sally Potter is one of England’s best directors. We remember Sally her fabulous filmography— the visionary masterpiece Orlando, the caustically witty social satire The Party and hope for better things to come. MT

BERLINALE 2020 | 20 FEBRUARY – 1 MARCH 2020 

 

 

 

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