First Look Pictures // 2002 // 113 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees (Retired) // December 10th, 2004
She fought for hope. She found a visionary.
All right, boys and girls, it's time for a parlor game. You'll need pencil and paper, and some little friends. Ready? Now one of you begins writing a story. After you've gotten it well under way, fold down the page until only the last line you've written is visible, then hand it to the person next to you. This person will read the line, learn from it what she can about your story and its direction, and continue it from there. Then, after she's written as much as she can think of, she folds the paper down and passes it along. When everyone's had a turn, it's time to read the story. You can bet it'll take some kooky directions.
If you're wondering what this has to do with Agnieszka Holland's film The Healer, it's that I firmly believe this is the method by which Holland and her co-writers came up with the screenplay. The Healer (also known by the baffling title Julie Walking Home) is a frustrating jumble of a film that never fulfills its setups and wastes a solid starring performance by Miranda Otto (the Lord of the Rings trilogy).
Julie (Miranda Otto) has just returned from a ski trip with her eight-year-old twins, Nicolas and Nicole, when two nearly simultaneous discoveries plunge her happy domestic world into chaos: Henry, her husband in all but name (William Fichtner, The Perfect Storm), has cheated on her, and Nicolas has cancer.
Julie immediately leaves Henry, who is repentant and doesn't want to give her up, and moves in with her widowed father (Jerzy Nowak). Fragmented though the family now is, all of its members are absorbed in Nicolas's struggle with illness. When he has a devastating reaction to chemotherapy, Julie seizes upon the suggestion offered by her father's mail-order fiancée: She tells Julie to seek out a Russian man named Alexei (Lothaire Bluteau, Orlando) who is famed for his powers of healing by the laying on of hands. With nothing else offering the hope of saving Nicolas, Julie takes him with her to Poland to see the healer.
She is astonished when Alexei picks them out of a crowd for his attention, and even more so when his touch produces an almost instant recovery for Nicolas. Since Alexei tells her that Nicolas needs repeated treatments, Julie follows him from country to country, and her feelings for the gentle, boyish Alexei develop into more than an acolyte's devotion. Even when she and Nicolas return to Canada and to a tentative truce with Henry, Julie and Alexei feel a link that draws them together despite the distance between them. When he shows up on her doorstep, they slip away for a secret romantic idyll -- but it may have disturbing consequences for Alexei and his mysterious powers.
I have to say that I expected better from director Agnieszka Holland. From her acclaimed Olivier, Olivier to the poignant Washington Square, Holland has created an impressive reputation for what Leonard Maltin has called "harshly realistic but sensitively handled dramas." But it wasn't my reasonably high expectations that doomed the experience of watching The Healer. This is a film with a serious identity crisis.
It begins with a prologue showing the child Alexei, whose healing powers are already recognized by doctors. As soon as we have begun to grow attached to this character, however, he vanishes for forty minutes, during which we meet Julie and undergo the banal yet depressing deterioration of her life. This section of the film is so rife with clichés and feels so artificial that it could have been lifted almost bodily from the worst kind of Lifetime made-for-television film. Julie and Henry go through all the expected motions, say all the things they're supposed to say at these times, and have painfully stagey confrontations. When Henry starts destroying the house where they were happy together, there's not an ounce of spontaneity to his actions; he picks up the poker because it's in the script.
When the issue of spirituality and religion comes up after Nicolas falls ill, the topic is every bit as artificially injected into the action. Julie's Catholic father criticizes Henry, not for being Jewish, but for not believing in anything; Julie herself has some problems with the established Church and has not brought up her children in any particular faith. For these reasons, Nicole brings up the question of whether Nicolas's illness is a direct result of the family's lack of faith. From this point on we could reasonably expect that the film would begin to seriously explore the consequences of the characters' lack of ostensible spirituality and allow them to draw conclusions about the place of religion in their lives, especially when they come into contact with the healer, whose powers seem to be miraculous. One might at least expect that Nicolas's cure would spark some kind of epiphany or even curiosity in Julie. Nope. The film labors hard to bring up the spiritual attitudes of Julie's family -- none of these discussions of faith seem spontaneous -- then completely abandons the theme just when it could become fruitful.
Instead, the patchwork plot now ventures into paperback romance. Alexei is an intriguing character, but he's quickly shunted into the role of a neophyte in love who receives his first lessons from Julie. His remarkable powers take a back seat, as if their only function was to provide the reason for Julie to meet him. The film does take a brief detour to make him a potentially Christlike figure by showing him being persecuted by Canadian policemen for little more than his naïveté and Russian passport, but then it returns to domestic melodrama. The only kind of faith that the film ends up portraying, after all its portentous religious talk and after bringing Alexei to the fore, is Julie's reawakened faith in men and sex -- but after all the buildup, that seems like a feeble kind of payoff.
Finally, the film ends with a scene of such breathtaking wrongness that not to mention it, although it grazes spoilage, would be an unforgivable sin of critical omission. I won't disclose what this final scene shows us, but it's so astonishingly out of place with what went before that I kept waiting for it to reveal itself as a dream sequence. It simply abandons two characters whom we have come to be invested in, and for the other characters it offers a conclusion so unlikely, so unsatisfying, so altogether unbelievable that I felt as if an ugly joke was being played on me. Did we lose the twenty minutes of film that might have made this ending work? Holland ought to come onscreen and offer an apology and explanation for this baffling "ending."
Another serious problem throughout the film, which exacerbates the plot problems, is the pacing; the first act of the film, especially, is unrelentingly rushed and abrupt. Traumas and arguments pile on top of each other without pause, so that we are jerked from one emotional scene to the next without time to absorb or react to the emotional content. This hurry-hurry style seriously undermines the emotional impact of the story, which is already dangerously weakened by its reliance on clichés. The jerky handheld camera work further disorients us; rather than evoking the characters' troubled emotions, as perhaps it is intended to do. Perhaps, too, the film's visual grittiness -- embodied in the documentary-style camera work and subdued color palette -- is meant to disguise the melodramatic story conventions, but if that was the intent, it goes for naught.
Audiovisual quality for this disc is satisfactory, but nothing special; the visual transfer shows grain, and the surround sound mix is largely wasted. The only audio element of potential interest is the ponderous piano score, and it doesn't impress. Not a single extra appears here either, as if the filmmakers just gave up on this release. One can certainly understand why.
About the only redeeming factor in the film is a few of the performances. Lothaire Bluteau is well cast as the healer; his is a relatively little-seen face in films, so he brings few audience associations to interfere with his credibility in this unusual role. Physically he gives Alexei a gentle, frail, almost sickly presence that naturally arouses women's protective instincts. The joy that he portrays during moments of romantic happiness is touching because he gives us the sense that he has had little real joy in his remarkable life. It's a shame that his character is underused, since his performance is a quietly engaging one.
The standout performance, though, is that of Miranda Otto. It's easy to see why an actress of her caliber would be attracted to this project, despite its uninspired script: The emotions she is required to portray cover a wide range -- warmth and delight, anguish and betrayal, anger and terror, and on and on. Otto has to do just about everything a dramatic actress can be asked to do (short of going into battle, which we already know she can do), from singing a folk ballad to pleading for her child's life to initiating a lover into sex, she does it all with a combination of vulnerability and luminosity that often raises her above the level of the material. We may wince at some of the lines she is forced to utter, but to her credit, she never betrays a feeling that they are beneath her; such is her presence that she almost makes them work. She and Bluteau create an appealing chemistry together that reaches its apotheosis in a lovemaking scene remarkable for its honesty and humor.
Unfortunately, the remainder of the cast is adequate at best, including the child actors and Fichtner as Henry: I suspect Henry is supposed to be a likable character despite his one slip, but he carries an insinuation of smugness that works against winning our sympathy. Similarly, Julie's father is, I believe, meant to be a figure of mingled comedy and pathos, a flawed but lovable old coot, but he struck me as being vaguely, disturbingly vampiric in the Nosferatu tradition. I kept waiting for him to grab a rat and drain its blood, and naturally this interfered with my appreciation of his purportedly cuddly qualities.
The Healer makes noises about faith, redemption, spirituality, and healing, but it ultimately seems to have nothing much to say about them -- and any message it does succeed in sending is marred by its lack of credibility. Perhaps the worst of its sins is that, finally, it just isn't very interesting. Serious Miranda Otto fans will want to check out her fine work here, but they'll probably still feel a sense of relief when the end credits start to roll.
Very, very guilty, except for Otto and Bluteau.
Review content copyright © 2004 Amanda DeWees; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: First Look Pictures
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English, with some Russian)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated R