Terence Davies has left his native Liverpool far behind but has retained the themes and style of his two fine British films, "Distant Voices Still Lives" and "The Long Day Closes" in "The Neon Bible," a beautifully crafted but thin and self-conscious tale about a dysfunctional family living in rural Georgia in the 1940s. Davies fans should support his new venture, but new audiences for his distinctive style will be hard to find, and Miramax may expect fairly modest returns in specialized theaters.

Terence Davies has left his native Liverpool far behind but has retained the themes and style of his two fine British films, “Distant Voices Still Lives” and “The Long Day Closes” in “The Neon Bible,” a beautifully crafted but thin and self-conscious tale about a dysfunctional family living in rural Georgia in the 1940s. Davies fans should support his new venture, but new audiences for his distinctive style will be hard to find, and Miramax may expect fairly modest returns in specialized theaters.

Until now, Davies has essayed painfully candid autobiographical pix based on his impoverished Catholic upbringing in Northern England, films that radiated with the filmmaker’s love for his mother and sisters and hate for his brutal father. Popular songs, films and radio snippets from the war years are featured prominently in his often achingly beautiful work.

All of the same elements are to be found in “The Neon Bible” (a curious title under the circumstances), though the new film is set in the American Deep South and the tone is distinctively American. It’s as though Davies was nervous about moving too far from the kind of characters, people and time frame with which he has succeeded in the past. As a result, the film, despite brilliant and touching moments, has the overall feel of an unadventurous rerun of material handled better the first time around.

The film opens promisingly with Mick Coulter’s elegant Scope camera moving in on 15-year-old David (Jacob Tierney) as he travels by train away from the valley where he’s lived all his life. Flashbacks return to five years earlier, when Aunt Mae(Gena Rowlands) came to live with David’s parents, the dirt-poor Frank (Denis Leary) and Sarah (Diana Scarwid). A former small-time showgirl well past her prime, Mae fascinates the boy and becomes his constant companion, to the strong disapproval of his volatile father. She introduces the boy to a world of magic and gives him the love his parents cannot.

Frank enlists when war breaks out, and never returns, driving Sarah to the edge of insanity. The teenage David finishes school and gets a job in a general store; a brief courtship of a pretty girl leads, frustratingly, to nothing; and when Mae is offered a singing job in Nashville and decides to move away, David is left to care for his suicidal mother.

For about the first half hour, Davies and his superb creative team weave a potent spell. The gliding camera, the use of popular songs of the era, the backwater community that evokes the town in Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter,” the disarming performances and the elegant direction all combine to exert a distinctive magic. But, starting with a poorly staged revival meeting sequence, things start to go wrong; Davies’ grip slackens, and the artifice overwhelms the perilously slim storyline.

Ultimately, this is a film of great moments: Aunt Mae singing “My Romance” at a wartime dance attended mostly by women; David, back to camera, standing on a veranda looking out on a starry sky, morphing from a 10-year-old into a 15 -year-old; World War II ending with the triumphant Max Steiner music from “Gone With the Wind” on the soundtrack. But overall, Davies seems to have fallen into a stylistic rut, and though the film is stunningly crafted it’s emotionally shallow.

Rowlands gives Aunt Mae great dignity and warmth, and Scarwid has impressive moments as David’s tragic mother. Tierney, the Canadian actor who plays David at 15, gives a lovely performance, as does Drake Bell, who essays the role of the younger David. Davies needs to break fresher ground in future outings; there’s no doubt that he’s an accomplished and individualistic filmmaker, but he may be hitting a stylistic dead end.

The Neon Bible

( Drama -- U.S.-British -- Color )

Production

A Miramax release of a Miramax Intl./Channel Four Films/Scala Films presentation of a Scala production. Produced by Elizabeth Karlsen, Olivia Stewart. Executive producers, Nik Powell, Stephen Woolley. Directed, written by Terence Davies, based on the novel by John Kennedy Toole.

Crew

Camera (CinemaScope, Metrocolor), Mick Coulter; editor, Charles Rees; music arranger, Robert Lockhart; production design, Christopher Hobbs; art director, Phil Messina; costume design, Monica Howe; sound (Dolby SR), Thomas Varga; casting, Laura Rosenthal; assistant director, Cas Donovan. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 23, 1995. Running time: 92 min.

With

Aunt Mae ... Gena Rowlands David at 15 ... Jacob Tierney Sarah ... Diana Scarwid David at 10 ... Drake Bell Frank ... Denis Leary Bobbie Lee Taylor ... Leo Burmester Miss Scover ... Frances Conroy Rev. Watkins ... Peter McRobbie Flora ... Joan Glover Jo Lynne ... Dana Dick Mr. Williams ... Virgil Graham Hopkins
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