A veritable avalanche of words opens novice helmer Sean Walsh’s adaptation of the monumental, famously unmanageable James Joyce novel “Ulysses.” But while a reader can return again and again to passages of beauty and mystery, a viewer of “bl,.m” becomes buried under the verbal pile-up — when Joyce’s humor no longer registers, there’s trouble. Walsh’s decade of devotion seems headed solely for university festivals and Irish studies conferences.
Joyce’s breathtaking ability to capture a single Dublin day in June 1904 is achieved through both narrative and symbolism: Mundane events are stepping stones, or diving boards, into other realms. The basic threads are carried by young poet Stephen Dedalus (Hugh O’Conor), ad man Leopold Bloom (Stephen Rea) and his wife Molly (the captivating Angeline Ball).
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Pic opens with a monologue from Molly, in which she reviews her day. This initial barrage of seemingly disconnected words slowly becomes comprehensible, and a navigable stream appears to form. Unfortunately, the stream dries up much too soon.
The bones of the plot — Molly receiving her lover, Bloom avoiding returning home and Dedalus investigating his psyche — and how all three dissolve into stream-of-consciousness, can work in film terms, but don’t here. While Joyce indeed works with montage throughout the novel, in Walsh’s movie, there’s no sense of the bringing together of a whole.
Pic’s greatest sin is that Bloom comes over as a bore. Looking like a Chaplin imitator at a costume party, Rea wears a hangdog expression in almost every scene, giving a picture of a nearly defeated Bloom rather than balancing this with the witty, “unconquered hero.” Shots of a mustachioed Rea in pink and red flounces don’t help.
In addition, O’Conor (“Chocolat,” “The Young Poisoner’s Handbook”) appears to have stepped off a regional stage with all nature-defying mannerisms intact; he seems able to expose only Dedalus’ pretensions.
Sole thesp capable of getting Joyce’s terrifically funny lines to connect is Ball (“The Commitments”), who revels in Molly’s intense sexuality and knows how to enjoy every physical craving.
The fourth character in the novel, the city of Dublin, never achieves more than a phantom presence in the pic — understandably, for a movie that runs less than two hours. The short running time keeps ramming up against the film: The audience simply doesn’t spend enough time with Bloom and Dedalus to make multiple shots of them urinating or wiping their asses either a valuable or shocking experience. Like its 1967 Joseph Strick-helmed predecessor, “Ulysses,” pic joins the ranks of the nobly conceived but misguidedly executed.
Tech credits are average. Colors and lighting, especially in fantasy sequences, have a cheap feel.
Title, “bl,.m” is Joyce’s shorthand for Leopold and Molly’s last name, Bloom.