Headlined by a powerful performance from Mike Nichols (in his onscreen debut) and pointillist playing by Miranda Richardson, David Hare’s pic version of “The Designated Mourner” brings the probing eye of the camera to Wallace Shawn’s legit original, but nothing more cinematic. World-preemed at the Berlin festival as a special tribute to the British juror, the film looks destined for highly specialized theatrical outings before seguing to the small screen as a permanent record of Shawn’s hit. First Look Pictures will need strong reviews, plus plenty of tub-thumping by the creative team, to make this work as a spring release in the U.S.
Enthusiasts of Hare’s previous three movies — “Wetherby,” “Paris by Night” and “Strapless” — will be disappointed to find none of the almost Gallic sensibility that transformed highbrow, politically charged ideas into resonant, often sensuous works of cinema way outside the normal parameters of quality Brit filmmaking. Here, Hare seems too entranced by the fine-sounding text to take this reverie on loss of ideals by the scruff of the neck and give it the reworking it requires for the screen. “Mourner” was shot in three days at Pinewood Studios with the original cast during the play’s premiere London run last year — a neat idea to capture its dramatic intensity but lacking the necessary distance between play and film to let the latter bloom on its own terms.
What ends up onscreen is similar to Spalding Gray’s monologues “Swimming to Cambodia” and “Monster in a Box,” but divided among three players and without Gray’s driving humor. That may have worked fine onstage, but, given the play’s serious, elevated content, filmgoers need a bit more than long close-ups to go the emotional distance with the characters.
Set in an unnamed, politically repressive country and, as in the stage version, played out with the three thesps sitting behind a trestle table facing the audience, pic opens with Jack (Nichols) describing his role as a “designated mourner” — someone chosen in ancient times to mourn for the last dying person in a clan. Like much that follows, it becomes clear only at the very end exactly what he is saying last rites over.
Next revealed at the table is Judy (Richardson), who turns out to be Jack’s wife, and finally her father, Howard (David de Keyser), a poet and thinker in disfavor with the regime. All of this swims into focus slowly, with characters initially described in terms of their personalities and thoughts rather than more concrete terms.
First half builds a portrait of the three that is mostly from Jack’s viewpoint — as an educated outsider initially in awe of his wife and (especially) his father-in-law, but not fully understanding their paranoia about ever-present enemies ready to attack them. Then, at the 40-minute mark, the film develops dramatic conflict as Jack admits he really didn’t like Howard or believe in anything he did, and turns on Judy, in one of the script’s few real dialogues.
As the heart and soul of the picture, Nichols is a revelation, moving smoothly from insouciance to pure emotion in the blink of an eye. Richardson, essentially in a supporting role, has a more murkily defined character to interpret — we understand her point of view, if not her catharsis — but makes a good, uptight counterweight to Nichols’ more soul-baring Jack. The actress’s body language and Yank accent are technically immaculate, though more keyed to a live audience than a camera. De Keyser is basically a guest star in the proceedings, but solid enough.
Technically, the picture is fine, with rapid overlapping dissolves moving the monologues along and Richard Hartley’s music reserved for key moments. Chunks of Gluck’s “Orpheus and Eurydice” underline the pic’s rarefied tone.