Alfred Cromer-Blake Ben Cross
Robert Rylands William Franklyn
Jill Cathy Underwood
Archdale Kenneth Colley
Juan Nogera Gary Piquer
Hume Maurice Denham
Sue Perdita Weeks
Ahira Lalita Ahmed
Abraham Karl Collins
Bristling with the kind of well-crafted dialogue that’s almost gone out of fashion in English-lingo pics, and dealing with feelings and possibilities rather than concrete events, “Robert Rylands’ Last Journey” reps a highly ambitious sophomore outing by Spanish director Gracia Querejeta that’s for upscale audiences only. Good word built on the fest circuit, and key reviews, will be vital for this to travel theatrically in Anglo markets, where the closest equivalent in overall feel is the body of tony dramas written and directed by David Hare (“Wetherby,” “Paris by Night,” “Strapless”) a few years back.
Helmer, daughter of well-known producer Elias Querejeta, bowed impressively four years back with the relationships mystery “A Passing Season” (aka “Whistlestop”), set around adjacent houses in the Spanish burbs. Though present pic is set in Oxford and shot in English, it has much of the same metaphysical flavor, with a tangled web of relationships and past histories that slowly clarify as the movie progresses. Film requires some patience in its middle stages, where there’s a drop in forward momentum, but overall it’s a rewarding ride for connoisseurs of quality drama.
Based on a novel by Javier Marias inspired by a year spent teaching at Oxford , the film revolves around the return of an archaeology professor, Robert Rylands (William Franklyn), to the university town after a 10-year absence, and the effect this has on his friends and former lovers. Pic’s complex time structure takes a while to become clear, with Rylands mysteriously appearing in the wintry dusk and walking into the local police station, where he sits down to talk to an old cop friend (Kenneth Colley). As the two chat through the night, Rylands’ past history and recent events gradually become clear.
After its intriguing opening, the movie settles down for a while into more regular drama, with the focus on university lecturer Alfred (Ben Cross), his sister Jill (Cathy Underwood), and her 10-year-old daughter, Sue (Perdita Weeks). Staying with them is a Spanish friend, fresh-faced Juan (Gary Piquer), who’s just arrived as a guest lecturer.
It’s soon clear that not all is right at the ranch. Alfred suffers from some mysterious malady that causes fainting spells and incapacitates his left hand. Jill, who’s never married or disclosed the identity of Sue’s father, is edgy in her relationship with her brother, and visibly unsettled when Rylands suddenly turns up in town. Meanwhile, both Juan and Sue outsiders to the main characters’ concealed pasts determine to find out the truth.
On the periphery of the story are aging college head Hume (Maurice Denham), who remembers Rylands’ controversial academic past, brainy young black student Abraham (Karl Collins) and Rylands’ all-wise Indian housekeeper, Ahira (Lalita Ahmed). Catalyst to the unraveling of the mystery, and everyone’s exact relationships, is Alfred’s illness being diagnosed as terminal.
Right from the get-go, the movie has a distinctively European, non-British feel, with a slightly irreal quality to the dialogue, fully saturated colors (typical of many Spanish pics’ look), and a semi-mystical bent to the storyline. Querejeta’s careful framing and compositions, and the precise, almost literary dialogue, enhance this feel, which from the midpoint on grows apace, as events lead up to the reason for Rylands’ visit to the police station.
Though the midway revelation is hardly a complete surprise, there’s enough to come in the second half to keep the mind engaged as Querejeta spins the film into an increasingly metaphysical orbit, notably at one point when Rylands and Sue “see” each other in their minds, despite being geographically separated. Though things like Rylands’ exact reason for returning, and his relationship with Alfred, are left almost in the realms of guesswork, only audiences looking for concrete answers are likely to be troubled. You basically buy into Querejeta’s approach or head for the exit.
In a dispassionate, dignified performance, veteran Franklyn is in his element , neatly contrasted with the more internal playing of Cross as Alfred. It’s the women, however, who make the strongest impact and are most in tune with the pic’s mystical side: TV actress Underwood, in her feature debut, is terrific as femme-in-the-middle Jill, and young Weeks very confident in a daughter role that avoids brattishness. Though there’s no real dramatic reason for Piquer’s role to be a Spaniard, the Iberian-Scottish actor is OK as the mystified bystander, and other supports are solid.
Tech credits are top-drawer, with Antonio Pueche’s lensing soaking up the English setting and Angel Illarramendi’s lilting score giving a boost to the early reels. More music in the latter stages would have helped give the movie extra emotional clout.