A very peculiar original story that plays like a labored adaptation of an old, obscure novel, “The Proposition” is an offer most people will be able to refuse. Powerful in a handful of scenes and intriguing due to its cast, this tale of an upper-class 1930s couple’s efforts to have a child and the men who enter the wife’s life as a result gets stuck in a bog of early feminist impulses, unrequited love, religious confusion and unlikely crime. Result is a far-fetched and overly contrived melodrama that doesn’t work on any of the serious levels it aspires to, making for a dim B.O. forecast.
Told via a flashback that only adds to the narrative clutter and includes many events to which the narrator could not possibly have been privy, yarn is set in Boston and environs, circa 1935. Father Michael McKinnon (Kenneth Branagh), fresh from Britain, joins the clergy at wealthy St. Jude’s, where, for unknown reasons, he goes out of his way to avoid contact with two of its most prominent parishioners, Arthur and Eleanor Barret (William Hurt and Madeleine Stowe), who live on a vast estate in the countryside.
Arthur, a leading attorney and adviser to FDR, and Eleanor, a successful author, have reached the point in their marriage where they are determined to have a child at all costs, even though Arthur’s sterility will force them to go outside conventional means to do so. Rejecting adoption out of her desire to experience pregnancy, the free-thinking Eleanor persuades her loving husband to pay a man to impregnate her, after which they will raise the child as their own.
Arthur’s partner Hannibal Thurman (Robert Loggia) engages top Harvard law student Roger Martin (Neil Patrick Harris) for the confidential task. In needlessly protracted scenes that are meant to be amusing but come off as painfully unfunny, the nervous Roger hems and haws, flees at the sight of the beautiful Eleanor and hides naked in her bathroom before finally being coaxed into bed.
When Eleanor doesn’t become pregnant the first time, Roger is forced to return, an unfortunate development in that repeated sessions cause him to fall in love with the older woman. Once he’s accomplished his mission, the newly wealthy Roger continues to badger Eleanor, to the point where Arthur is forced to punch him out and threaten to kill him if he persists.
At the same time, Father McKinnon can steer clear of the Barrets no longer. In a dramatic dinner scene, the priest announces that he is, in fact, Arthur’s nephew, the son of his host’s long-estranged brother, a Nazi-leaning, U.K.-based businessman. From here, 45 minutes in, melodrama is piled upon melodrama: Roger turns up murdered, Eleanor loses her baby and must find another lover, she withdraws emotionally from her husband, the dramatic reason for Arthur’s split with his brother is revealed, and Father McKinnon undergoes a crisis of faith and conscience when he, too, finds himself falling under Eleanor’s spell.
With Rick Ramage’s incident-and-theme-heavy script played straight under Lesli Linka Glatter’s sober direction, it all becomes too, too much, a story of illicit yearnings filled with furtive comings and goings, all-but-unbelievable sexual couplings and deep secrets that change everything forever upon being revealed at crucial moments.
Under adverse circumstances, Stowe and, particularly, Hurt manage to bring some dramatic conviction to their roles. The strongest scenes involve Hurt, compelling as a man of intelligence and dignity who, despite his usual patrician reserve, is fully capable of expressing both great love and full-throttle rage. (Entering middle age, the actor is beginning to bear an uncanny resemblance to Woodrow Wilson.)
By contrast, Branagh seems rather uncomfortable in the part of a priest who himself is profoundly uncomfortable with just about everything that happens to him in the course of the story and perhaps with his very calling. Josef Sommer has a couple of strong scenes as the senior priest at St. Jude’s, as does David Byrd as the Barret family doctor, while Blythe Danner skulks about as the head of the household staff who has a murky background of her own.
Pic takes handsome advantage of the New England autumn, which pleasingly complements David Brisbin’s refined production design, Anna Sheppard’s tony period costumes and Peter Sova’s judicious lensing.