The dawn of a new era imbues Stephen Poliakoff’s provocative “Century.” Centered around a time of great strides in scientific and medical discovery, the film seamlessly incorporates such pertinent issues of turn-of-the-century England as race, religion and sexuality. Still, the pedigree production will have a difficult time swimming against mainstream tastes and will require special handlingto find an arthouse niche.
The film opens on the eve of 1899 in rural England. Reisner (Robert Stephens) , a Romanian Jew by way of Scotland, is a prosperous textile-mill owner grudgingly tolerated by the local gentry. His garish ways — including a lavish electrical sign to bring in the new year — have served him well in commerce but not in society.
Reisner’s son Paul (Clive Owen), a recent medical school grad, is meant to become a gentleman. His position at a London research hospital proves to be more commendable than tactical. Medicine has yet to be embraced as a science and the resident physicians are viewed with amusement and skepticism.
Nonetheless, Paul shines in this new setting. He emerges as the star medical researcher and confidant of the operation’s chief, Mandry (Charles Dance). He also finds romance with Clara (Miranda Richardson), a lab assistant with a veiled past.
The turning point occurs when Paul defies Mandry, who he believes is purposely ignoring vital experiments developed by another doctor. This breach of etiquette costs him dearly.
The obvious irony in Poliakoff’s bit of history is that it’s difficult to tell the scoundrels from the gentlemen. Mandry, by dint of social position, is respected even by Paul. But truth is ultimately the young man’s guide and greatest weapon.
Woven into the moral tale is an unabashed romanticism. The relationship of the two men, Paul’s love for Clara and an affection for a time past combine for a breathtaking emotional experience.
Handsomely crafted and cleverly adorned, “Century” gives the sense of an honest perspective on the bygone era. The performers, particularly Dance and Richardson, provide superlative turns, grounding the drama in real terms.
Sure to elicit strong response, pic will have to capitalize quickly on whatever heat it can generate. That it is decidedly outside the “Masterpiece Theatre” mode proves both an entertainment asset and a bit of a marketplace obstacle.