A witty script and strong performances hoist “Metroland” beyond the confines of its rather standard, TV-style approach. Based on British scribe Julian Barnes’ 1980 debut novel about the dreams and disillusionment of two school chums edging into adulthood in London suburbia, Philip Saville’s film comes a little too late to escape a sense of deja vu in its portrait of the 1960s and ’70s. But this comedy-drama is sexy and entertaining nonetheless, and should land some limited theatrical dates before settling into its natural niche on small screens.
Set mainly in 1977, the story centers on young married couple Chris (Christian Bale) and Marion (Emily Watson), who have set up house and started a family in Metroland, the staid commuter country at the end of the London underground’s Metropolitan Line. Disruption comes along — raising conflicts from both the past and present — with the return of boyhood chum Toni (Lee Ross), with whom Chris once shared the dream of fleeing slow suburban death and a banker’s job to live in bohemian splendor in Paris.
Having lapsed into sexual routine and marital rationing with Marion, Chris increasingly begins to dwell on his time in Paris during the late-’60s student protest period, and his relationship with sexual spitfire Annick (Elsa Zylberstein). This idyll as a faux French beatnik with a contempt for all things English is put to an end by Marion. With her amused, vaguely superior mix of pragmatism and sophistication, she informs Chris he is far too unoriginal to avoid marriage and a conventional destiny.
Back in the here and now, Chris is unable to shake off the feeling he has surrendered his youth and ideals. He feels the pull of wild parties and the hedonistic spirit fostered by the birth of the punk subculture. Having continued his vagabond’s existence without ties or responsibilities, anti-establishment Toni openly frowns on Chris for his acceptance of middle-class complacency, a mortgage and a nine-to-five advertising job. Perhaps acting out of jealousy, he plays on Chris’ uncertainties about the choices he has made, even placing sexual temptation in his path to undermine his marriage.
The flashback scheme taking in the Paris period and Chris and Toni’s early-’60s schooldays is very structured and straightforward, and the observations about fidelity, commitment and compromise are far from new. But screenwriter Adrian Hodges’ clever dialogue and director Saville’s unpretentious approach make this a more satisfying experience than its narrow scope would indicate.
While Chris sees himself as a former angry young man, Marion views him as merely petulant, and Bale brings bittersweet humor to the character’s growing acknowledgment that he may be just another unexceptional suburban guy. Ross (“Secrets and Lies”) makes a likable villain, trapped within the anarchic bad-boy mold. But the real asset here is Watson. In what might appear to be a back-seat role, the “Breaking the Waves” star effortlessly conveys the humor, intelligence and resolve of a woman who is settled but by no means spent.