Rising British thesp Samantha Morton (“Under the Skin”) provides the heart and soul of “Dreaming of Joseph Lees,” a small-scale period meller, almost European in flavor, about a young woman’s romantic obsession with a childhood hero. But despite Morton’s lustrous, deeply etched performance, the elements don’t fully click in this risky venture, signaling niche business at best.
“When I was 14, I fell in love with my cousin, Joseph Lees,” says Eva (Morton), immediately setting up the story’s nut. It’s 1958, in the southwestern rural county of Somerset, and Eva, in between thinking of the long-absent Lees, a geologist who lost his leg in a quarry accident and disappeared to Italy, works as a clerk in a saw mill, where she’s relentlessly courted by working-class stud Harry (Lee Ross).
Eva lives at home with her vague, forgetful father (Frank Finlay) and smart-alecky younger sister, Janie (Lauren Richardson). When she hears Lees has come back for a funeral, she’s devastated when her dad forbids her to go.
Harry, meanwhile, continues his advances, and, in a rebellious decision for the time, Eva moves in with him, surrenders her virginity — in a tender, authentic sequence that’s both in character and in period — but demurs from plunging into marriage. She doesn’t want to “make the same mistake,” she says, as her divorced mom did with her dad.
Half an hour into the movie, the dramatic tumblers fall into place, as Eva meets Lees at a wedding and the pair dance — in an otherworldly mix of music and visuals that technically recalls the Tony-Maria dance at the gym in “West Side Story.” It’s a brief encounter but enough to ignite the fires on both sides.
Though Harry, underneath his braggardly exterior, is a simple man who feels lucky to have snagged Eva, he’s not blind. For a while he tolerates Eva’s fixation on Lees, though as the pressure grows for her to choose between the two men, he slowly cracks.
Both the movie and the story are extremely small, but the result, when it works, does manage to tap a rarefied zone of emotion and feeling that’s usually the province of Continental, rather than British, pictures. It’s most effective when images (usually of Morton’s expressive face) and music (by Zbigniew Preisner, best known for his Kieslowski scores) take over: Direction by former TV helmer Eric Styles and lensing by Jimmy Dibling shift into a more poetic mode that’s at odds with the unexciting, rather staid look of the rest of the movie.
Morton’s performance, which recalls the naive but grounded persona of the young Rita Tushingham, gives depth to the shallow material, imbuing it with a universal emotional quality. But the final reels lapse into bathos as the frustrated Harry takes desperate measures to compete with Lees.
The two male leads are OK, though very much in Morton’s penumbra. More pinpoint playing comes from 13-year-old Richardson as Eva’s all-knowing, precocious sister, Finlay as the seemingly absentminded father (especially in a tea-time sequence in which he taunts Lees) and Holly Aird as Harry’s sharp but unlettered sister. Production and costume design are both tiptop, especially in small details and habits of ’50s British life, and the Isle of Man reasonably replicates rural Somerset.