The harrowing saga of a child custody battle forms the basis of the exquisitely observed "Hollow Reed." The unrelentingly savage turf-war pic gets top marks for assaying a tough subject without blinking and for delivering a balanced, gripping case study.

The harrowing saga of a child custody battle forms the basis of the exquisitely observed “Hollow Reed.” The unrelentingly savage turf-war pic gets top marks for assaying a tough subject without blinking and for delivering a balanced, gripping case study.

Still, artistry and craft are unlikely to translate into a latter-day “Kramer vs. Kramer” at the box office. The new outing pulls no punches. Though decidedly unsensational and not lurid in tone, neither is it cuddly. Audience will be primarily upscale, fueled by reviews and editorial pieces that should elevate the pic beyond succes d’estime worldwide.

Film opens ominously with preteen Oliver Wyatt (Sam Bould) running from some unseen danger. He claims to have been bloodied by a gang of older boys. At the hospital, his divorced parents — Martyn (Martin Donovan) and Hannah (Joely Richardson) — express concern for their son and barely civilized mutual candor.

A few days later, Martyn, a doctor, is called to Oliver’s school. His son’s hand is severely swollen — the boy says the injury is from a slammed car door. The X-rays indicate otherwise: It has the appearance of being crushed by someone.

Tale unfolds in the manner of a quiet, Gothic horror story. The flesh-and-blood villain is Frank Donally (Jason Flemyng), Hannah’s live-in lover , a seemingly respectable engineer with a latent sadistic strain. Martyn’s immediate response is to grab the boy, but he’s cautioned to pursue custody via the courts.

Paula Milne’s screenplay, based on a true story, presents far from an open-and-shut case. Oliver’s safety is complicated by several key wrinkles. For starters, Martyn left his wife for Tom (Ian Hart), and it’s safe to say Hannah’s lawyers will make hay of placing a child in a homosexual household.

But crucial to the situation is the fact that Frank has kept his violent strain from Hannah. She assumes that Martyn’s allegations are groundless and vindictive. When she stumbles onto the truth, she throws Frank out. But he comes crawling back for forgiveness, and she chooses to believe that he will change.

The chilling underbelly of “Hollow Reed” is the manner in which essentially decent people rationalize their selfish behavior. Hannah is willing to absolve Frank and risk her son’s safety on no more than a promise. It’s easy to understand Oliver’s silence about the physical abuse he’s suffered — he sees his mother’s sexual relationship as more meaningful than her maternal concerns.

Director Angela Pope handles the proceedings with authority, eschewing histrionics for subtle observation. There’s an unshakable verisimilitude about the drama. Also impressive is her assured, uncomplicated technical command, which is unhurried and uncluttered.

Donovan, best known for his work with director Hal Hartley, seems an odd choice for a British doctor. But his natural style and unaffected accent hit the right note. Richardson and Hart are first-rate, and Flemyng only occasionally lapses into the obvious in his largely unvariegated role. The soul of the piece is young Bould, a haunting presence who embodies the bruised psyche of someone incapable of defending himself and unaware of the emotional battering he’s experiencing.

“Hollow Reed” is a truly disquieting experience because it packs its punch in simple, formal fashion. One cannot be unmoved by the pain at the story’s center, especially when it’s caused by good intentions.

Hollow Reed

British

Production

A Scala production of a Scala/Senator Film/Channel Four Films presentation. Produced by Elizabeth Karlsen. Executive producers, Nik Powell, Stephen Woolley. Directed by Angela Pope. Screenplay, Paula Milne, story by Neville Bolt.

Crew

Camera (color), Remi Adefarasin; editor, Sue Wyatt; music, Anne Dudley; production design, Stuart Walker; costume design, Pam Downe; sound (Dolby), John Pritchard; assistant director, Jonathan Karlsen; casting, Susie Figgis. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema), Jan. 26, 1996. Running time: 106 min.

With

Martyn Wyatt - Martin Donovan
Hannah Wyatt - Joely Richardson
Tom Dixon - Ian Hart
Frank Donally - Jason Flemyng
Oliver Wyatt - Sam Bould
Judge - Edward Hardwicke
Hannah's Lawyer - Douglas Hodge
Martyn's Lawyer - Annette Badland
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