Smoothly mounted and solidly played, “Monk Dawson” is a narrative-driven yarn of a priest’s crisis of religious conscience that’s an enjoyable ride but has a miniseries feel overall. A small theatrical audience could be found for this well-crafted first feature by producer-director Tom Waller, 23, but in major markets it’s more likely to end up on the tube, where its crowded storyline would benefit from an expanded running time.
Despite its lack of modern commercial smarts, and almost old-fashioned concentration on abstracts like friendship and moral conflicts among the upper middle class, the movie is an impressive bow by Waller, who raised the production coin himself after graduating as an editor from the U.K.’s Northern Film School in fall ’95 and optioning Piers Paul Read’s novel. Pic has a technical confidence that’s way in excess of its flimsy budget.
Story unfurls as a massive flashback prompted by the visit of a journalist, Bobby Winterman (Ben Taylor), to his former boyhood friend Eddie Dawson (John Michie) at a remote monastery in 1991. Theme of the pic is set up immediately by Winterman’s voiceover, noting that Dawson “lived in the hope of making things better. I lived for myself.” Reason for the friends’ split emerges near the end, with a neat coda.
Flashback starts in 1954, with the duo becoming boyhood pals at a Roman Catholic school in North Yorkshire. Eight years later, Dawson is already spending his Sundays as an altar boy in the school’s church and — in a piece of reasoning that’s hardly convincing — decides to serve God full-time after getting vague homosexual stirrings for another pupil.
As a village priest, he soon shows his unconventional side by baptizing the bastard daughter of a social outcast, Mollie (Rhona Mitra), against locals’ wishes. To turn down the heat, the Catholic authorities transfer him to a tony neighborhood in Chelsea, London, where he’s thrown together with a wealthy parishioner’s rebellious daughter, Theresa (Kate Steavenson-Payne), whose sexual forthrightness — it’s the early ’70s — troubles his dreams.
Dawson runs afoul of the Catholic authorities again when he publishes a controversial article with the help of Bobby’s journalistic connections. After finally leaving the priesthood, he meets Jenny (Paula Hamilton), a glamorous Sloane Ranger who first gets him a job on a tabloid and then beds him. Dawson’s emotional troubles are only beginning, as Jenny takes up with Bobby and Dawson subsequently enters a serious relationship with Theresa.
Pic’s main fault is its sheer wealth of incident spread over almost 40 years. Potentially interesting characters, such as Mollie, are hardly developed, and the sense of scrambling through a plot more suited to a miniseries increases as the movie progresses. What the film loses in its haste is any sense of a thoroughgoing friendship between the two men — and thereby any deep involvement with the characters and their crises. Bobby pops up in the story now and then, but he’s just one of many jostling for space.
Even if the movie fails to pack the emotional punch worthy of its subject matter, Waller has come up with a confidently directed item that’s easy to watch. Mark Jensen’s lush, evocative score and Teoh Gay Hian’s good-looking lensing give the pic a pro sheen, and perfs are generally good, especially newcomer Steavenson-Payne as the love-struck Theresa, Taylor as the careerist Bobby, and former model Hamilton as the confident, well-heeled Jenny.
As Dawson, Michie is serviceable but never seems to get right to the heart of his complex character — partly a fault of James Magrane’s surface-skimming script, which tries to pack in too much incident at the expense of character and the underlying themes.