The early scenes offer modest promise. The Kahn family works in the garment business in London’s East End, a milieu that, given its limited cinematic exposure, stands to offer an interesting alternative to the countless cinematic views of upper-class Edwardian England. A coldly rigorous visual style and analytical narration that situates young Esther apart from other members of her boisterous family indicate a clear intelligence at work that earns viewer patience and curiosity about where the tale might be headed.
Stubbornly absent of emotions and interests, the twentyish Esther (Summer Phoenix) finds her life transformed at a Yiddish theater performance; the narration informs us that she hasn’t watched the play so much as entered into it. Suddenly inspired to become an actress, she joins a small theater company and is taken under the wing of an old pro, Nathan (Ian Holm), who takes her through the paces of elementary stage acting in a hugely protracted sequence that might have been fascinating if it had seemed that the student was getting anything out of the instruction.
Unfortunately, however, Esther remains a brick wall, devoid of any trace of an inner life or, alas, of talent. It’s impossible to tell to what degree the fault lies with Phoenix (the younger sister of Joaquin and the late River Phoenix) or with Desplechin’s conception of the role, which reveals itself as increasingly intellectualized with each passing hour. But on the most basic level of plausibility, it is inconceivable that such a drab, listless, witless and uninspired young lady, who never has anything to say for herself and speaks with an unacceptable-for-the-stage accent when she does open her mouth, would ever have been welcomed into the fiercely competitive London theatrical circles of the time; that she might have been given the leading role in Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler,” as happens here, is beyond absurd, and when the suddenly insecure Esther begins asking, “Am I a good actress?,” one is tempted to talk back to the screen.
Dramatic verisimilitude is further strained by the entrance of Esther’s first lover, whom she takes on only when Nathan tells her she’s “cold, hard as a stone ,” and needs the life experience of a romance. Philippe Haygard (Fabrice Desplechin) is a brainy, rather pretentious young man whose English vocabulary is a lot better than his strong French accent and who has unaccountably obtained a position as one of London’s leading drama critics. Not only that, but when it comes time to prepare the production of “Hedda Gabler,” the Frenchman is selected to do a new translation into English.
What remains of any credibility evaporates in the climax, which recounts the play’s opening night. Consumed with jealousy, the first emotion she has ever felt, when Philippe begins consorting with another woman, Esther decides she simply can’t go on while the Italian redhead is in the audience with her former flame. Then, as if to settle the issue, she eats glass in her dressing room. If ever there was a good case for booting out an unprofessional and temperamental star and turning to a willing understudy, this is it. But no, the rest of the company endlessly coddles and hand-holds Esther until they manage to push her onstage and raise the curtain. Impact of her performance is helpfully obscured by music, rendering the final line of narration — “The actor was made at last” — more than a tad unconvincing.
Performances across the board, even from old pro Holm, have something close to the opposite effect the director no doubt intended. While one can imagine that Desplechin was motivated by the idea of a woman finding emotion in the “pretend” world of the theater before she can find it in real life, there is little evidence onscreen of why he felt motivated to adapt (with Emmanuel Bourdieu) this story by the obscure English writer Arthur Symons.
Underpopulated tale may feature the least lively or memorable gallery of supporting characters for a British theatrical film ever. Muted colors in the period production and costume design cloak the proceedings in a consistently somber mood.