A potentially maudlin "Death in Venice" scenario in a contemporary universe and a wryly comic key, "Love and Death on Long Island" marks a winning feature debut from Richard Kwietniowski.

A potentially maudlin “Death in Venice” scenario in a contemporary universe and a wryly comic key, “Love and Death on Long Island” marks a winning feature debut from Richard Kwietniowski. While the approach here is more conventional and less visually stylish than the British writer-director’s accomplished short films, the witty script and John Hurt’s plum lead performance — plus some careful marketing — should secure at least a modest commercial profile for this warm comedy.

Based on the book by novelist, essayist and film critic Gilbert Adair, the story begins in London and centers on middle-aged widower Giles De’Ath (Hurt), a renowned literary figure with a pronounced disdain for all things modern. Locked out of his apartment in the rain, he reluctantly seeks shelter in a local twinplex. But instead of the expected E.M. Forster adaptation, he finds himself watching a vacuous teen pic called “Hotpants College II.” He is about to walk out in disgust when pic’s pretty-boy co-star Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley) appears and Cupid strikes.

Instantly infatuated, Giles starts gathering information, first on the movie (Sight and Sound calls it a “puerile romp without a single redeeming feature”), and then on the star. Banishing his housekeeper (Sheila Hancock) from his study, he feigns a heavy writing schedule and peruses magazine articles with titles like “Hollywood’s Most Snoggable Fellas!!!,” assembling a scrapbook that he labels Bostockiana. Forced to embrace technology, he buys a TV and VCR to study the teen idol’s oeuvre.

Drawn by his obsession, Giles visits the sleepy Long Island town where Ronnie lives. He first makes contact with Ronnie’s partner, Audrey (Fiona Loewi), claiming that his vast knowledge of the actor’s career was picked up from his goddaughter, a rabid fan. Giles’ English aplomb and his high esteem for Ronnie’s talents persuade Audrey to introduce them. Not too bright but with ambitions of being a serious actor, Ronnie responds to Giles’ flattery, his analysis of the Shakespearean elements of his work in “Hotpants” and his talk of a script project about a young deaf-mute’s quest for love.

“Love and Death” advocates the discovery of beauty and love in unexpected places. But set as it is in the real world, pic declines to reward those pursuits fully; bittersweet conclusion denies Giles the “Lolita”-style pleasure he suddenly craves. Where Kwietniowski’s script excels is in showing Giles’ lightheaded joy and pride as he greedily consumes information on his loved one, seemingly aware of but untroubled by the frivolousness of the enterprise. His total commitment is illustrated in a funny parody of Brit TV quiz show “Mastermind,” with Ronnie as contestant Giles’ chosen subject.

The humor here is of a dry British brand that scores consistently, especially when observing Giles’ ignorance of modern culture and technology, and the culture clash set off by his trip to Long Island.

Excerpts from Ronnie’s trashy teen movies are a little more obvious and could perhaps have benefited from a distinguishing visual style. Lenser Oliver Curtis does, however, differentiate between the gray, chilly light of the London exteriors and the warmer, pastel tones of the Long Island ones. Nova Scotia locations stand in for the latter.

This is arguably Hurt’s best role in years, and he bites into it with relish, managing to seem both manipulative and vulnerable, dour and droll at the same time.

Priestley’s vanilla image is a snug fit for his character, and the actor reveals himself to be a good sport, taking digs at a kind of career not exactly light years from his own. Loewi also has moments as the initially welcoming woman in the triangle, who catches on before Ronnie does to Giles’ intentions.

Love and Death on Long Island

British-Canadian

Production

A Skyline Films (U.K.)/Imagex (Nova Scotia) production, with the participation of British Screen, Telefilm Canada, Arts Council of England and Nova Scotia Film Development Corp. in association with BBC Films, Mikado, the Sales Co. (International sales: the Sales Co., London.) Produced by Steve Clark-Hall, Christopher Zimmer. Directed, written by Richard Kwietniowski, based on the novel by Gilbert Adair.

Crew

Camera (color), Oliver Curtis; editor, Susan Shipton; music, the Insects, Richard Grassby-Lewis; production design, David McHenry; art direction, Fleur Whitlock, Emmanuel Jannasch; costume design, Andrea Galer; sound (Dolby Digital), Neil Kingsbury, Jim Rillie; associate producer, Brian Donovan; assistant director, Max Keene; casting, Kate Day, Jon Comerford. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 11, 1997. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Giles De'Ath - John Hurt Ronnie Bostock - Jason Priestley Audrey - Fiona Loewi Mrs. Barker - Sheila Hancock Irving Buckmuller - Maury Chaykin Henry - Gawn Grainger Mrs. Reed - Elizabeth Quinn

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