HBO // 2008 // 75 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // March 17th, 2009
Attraction. Temptation. Addiction.
"If you're cured, you'll be cured of desire -- and who wants to be cured of desire?"
Paul Peplow (Paddy Considine, The Bourne Ultimatum) is a reporter and poet who's finally managed to get a fresh start in life. At one point in his life, Paul was in a pretty deep hole personally. He was a hopeless alcoholic, his girlfriend was cheating on him incessantly, and it was becoming harder and harder to hold a job. One day, Paul finally got a grip and decided to join Alcoholics Anonymous. It helped him immensely. With a lot of time and perseverance, Paul was able to become clean and sober once again, and managed to get a job writing for a magazine. All the hard work pays off when Paul manages to snag an interview with billionaire Victor Quinn (Jonathan Pryce, Brazil). This is no small feat. Victor had been notoriously reclusive when it comes to the media, generally refusing to grant interviews or participate in conversations with journalists. However, it just so happened that Victor had read some of Paul's poetry, and liked it so much that he agreed to the interview.
Shortly after Paul and Victor meet, it becomes a bit unclear as to who is interviewing who. Victor brushes aside most of Paul's questions with quick answers, and proceeds to ask a lot of questions of his own. He's particularly fascinated by the idea that Paul doesn't drink, and becomes even more intrigued when he hears that Paul is in AA. Victor makes the bold statement that AA is a cult, and that Paul will never truly be free until he doesn't need it anymore. Paul understandably responds with anger, harshly informing Victor that he might not be alive if it weren't for AA. After some further discussion on the matter, Victor shrugs and lets it go. He then offers to give Paul a job -- a new job, a better job, working on his company website. Paul happily agrees, and initially finds himself very happy in the new position.
One night, Paul meets Elsa Quinn (Uma Thurman, The Life Before Her Eyes), Victor's wife. They begin to chat, and after a while the conversation veers to the subject of alcoholism. Elsa was also a former addict, but she no longer attends AA meetings. She says she doesn't need them anymore, and that she is able to drink casually without any consequences. Paul doesn't believe what he hears. He finds the very concept contradictory and appalling, and soon finds himself frantically searching for a way to get out of the conversation. Not because he is offended by Elsa, but because she is so irresistible and appealing that he finds himself having feelings for her. Feelings indicate the presence of emotions, one emotion is anger, and anger is what led Paul to start drinking in the first place. Suddenly, Paul and Elsa find themselves kissing passionately, only to have circumstances force them to quickly go their separate ways. Is Victor playing some kind of diabolical game? Is Elsa truly free of her addictions? Will Paul ultimately succumb to his weaknesses?
There are few things that I love more in a film than good dialogue. Give me a few characters who have an interesting way of presenting the spoken word, and I will sit there and listen as long as you ask me to. I know some fellow reviewers and critics who tend to be a little hesitant about the idea of watching plays that have been adapted for the screen. They complain about how a production feels too "stage-y," and say that what works on the stage needs to be made more cinematic or it simply won't work on the screen. I don't feel that way. If I am given the opportunity to see a film with three-dimensional characters that have been crafted with thoughtfulness and honesty, then by golly, I'll take it. My Zinc Bed, adapted from the play of the same name by David Hare, is such a film. It takes place in a series of simple sets, and basically involves nothing more than three characters having conversations, but it is nothing short of deeply compelling.
Hare's play throws out a lot of ideas and concepts that are quite intriguing. There are discussions on subjects ranging from capitalism to marriage, and a whole lot of assorted goodies in-between. It may seem a bit dense on a first viewing, and even after repeated viewings one may begin to wonder whether every single piece Hare includes actually fits into the puzzle. Perhaps so, perhaps not, but the primary idea is a subversive and brutally honest one that drives My Zinc Bed to success. I have often thought about the concept of opening oneself up emotionally. At some point, many of us make a choice whether or not we are going to do so. If we allow ourselves to feel and to truly live, then obviously we open ourselves up to some measure of vulnerability. We can be hurt and we can be damaged. When one has had enough of such experiences, they may choose to shut down emotionally, allowing a straightforward and safe logic to replace something as messy as feelings and/or emotional attachments. This often provides a certain form of safety, but also prevents one from truly being able to experience life to its fullest (not to mention to potentially toxic long-term effects).
David Hare explores that idea here, but he chooses an interesting way in which to examine the subject. Rather than telling a story based purely on the idea of emotions and relationships (which certainly play a big role here), Hare chooses to use alcohol as his catalyst for discussion. In doing so, he enables viewers to look at the arguments a bit more objectively, and also manages to give the subject a slightly more subversive edge. If we were merely discussing the subject in a straightforward manner, I think it might be much easier to make a sentimental argument for allowing yourself to feel and be vulnerable. However, by tying the logic of that argument in with the logic of leaving AA in order to be truly free rather than merely restrained, Hare successfully emphasizes the diabolical nature of the choice.
The actors are all perfectly chosen, not only because they play their roles with pitch-perfect precision, but because their personas perfectly embody what their roles are meant to signify. As Victor Quinn, Jonathan Pryce oozes charm and free-spirited joy, as if to say, "Look at how glorious my life is!" It's so convincing that we immediately suspect it is too good to be true, that Pryce must be some sort of devil plotting a diabolical game. He also gets to deliver the juiciest lines, such as this one when he turns down the idea of going to a Mozart concert: "All that life-affirming can seem awfully jangly when it hits you at the wrong angle." Paddy Considine is a good deal more plain and uncharismatic as the restrained Paul. He's peaceful and he doesn't seem to have any problems, but his life also seems perfectly dull. He's what many of us feel we need to be, while Victor is what many of us want to be. Finally, we have Uma Thurman as Elsa, the story's sweet siren of destruction. Here is a woman with the beauty and charm to make both Victor and Paul abandon their deeply held philosophies, all the while holding buried problems and complexities of her own behind her radiant appearance. All three actors play off each other remarkably well.
The transfer is a solid one, with the soft color scheme accentuated with clarity and depth. It's not much to look at visually, aside from a few brief exterior shots of some lovely landscapes, but I'm pleased with the image. Flesh tones are accurate, blacks are fairly deep, detail is perfectly acceptable. The audio is equally effective, with the dialogue-heavy track occasionally accentuated by an insinuating score from the talented Simon Boswell. No extras are included on the disc.
I have very few complaints about the film, save for the fact that just a couple of dialogue exchanges between Thurman and Considine devolve into slightly overheated melodrama. Perhaps this is intentional, and it would actually seem to fit from a thematic standpoint, but I still found these moments a bit too distracting, as they briefly pulled me out of the viewing experience. Also, I would have really appreciated some extras. An interview with Hare (who also provided the screenplay) and/or the actors would have been nice, but alas, HBO continues to be rather stingy in that department.
My Zinc Bed is a terrific film that deserves your attention. This 75-minute gem packs a powerful punch, leaving you with plenty to chew on and talk about. Great performances, great dialogue, great stuff. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 75 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated