Like A Merry War, the adaptation of George
Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra
that came out last year, Metroland, directed by Philip Saville
and adapted by Adrian Hodge from the novel by Julian Barnes, in the end boils
down to a pretty banal discovery of the obvious. For some reason, perhaps the
historical accident of Britain’s class
system or the public school ethos that does so much to sustain it,
upper-middle-class Englishmen like Orwell and Barnes retain the ability to be
bowled over by the news that people tend to marry and have children as a natural
part of their adult lives. To these public school boys, the state of being
single and having a few good male friends, mostly from school, and as many
girlfriends as possible who are willing to provide casual sex, must seem like
the state of nature. Marriage and children, by contrast, are merely the means by
which an alien and rather distasteful system, smacking of the worst and most
tasteless excesses of the lower middle classes and invented by those fabulous
beasts called
provides for a new generation of middle managers.

True, both films end happily with former artistes and scourges of the
bourgeoisie accepting their lot in life as husbands and fathers. This is all to
the good, but why should they expect to be congratulated for it? We are
introduced to Chris (Christian Bale) and Marion (Emily Watson) and their young
family (baby daughter Amy) only in order that they may be almost torn apart by
the intervention of the loathsome Tony (Lee Ross), who fills
Chris’s head with dreams of a return
to bachelorhood and independence. When the family is put back together the
circularity of the process does not please.
Wouldn’t the same purpose have been
served if our author had thought in the beginning to tell his hero:
“Get used to
it!” In fact he does tell him this.
Chris himself recognizes that the kind of fantasies Tony conjures up are
natural—and are fantasies. And yet he
insists, or almost insists, on attempting to live them out anyway. To be sure,
such weak-mindedness not uncommon in married men, but unless it is accompanied
by something to make it more interesting than in its native state it is, it is
hardly worthy a whole movie.

Or so it seems to me. There is some fleeting interest sparked by Miss Watson
in the role of the waspy Marion, whose wit and sarcasm constantly deflate
Chris’s tendency to pretension and
self-delusion but also hide a secret of her own that comes to us as a dubious
surprise towards the end. But we do not see nearly enough of her, while we do
see much too much of the ghastly Tony who, even for a radical veteran of the
1960s in 1977, seems far too bad to be true. I also
don’t believe that Tony is a poet,
though he is said to be one. It’s not
that poets cannot be quite as bad as Tony is but rather that, insofar as they
are poets, we should expect them to be bad in more interesting ways. Nor, I
think, would even the most louche or self-consciously radical of poets in 1977
have cultivated an interest in punk rock.

Right smack dab in the middle of this picture, Saville places an extended
flashback to Chris’s student days in
Paris in the
year of 1968, when he has a passionate affair with the stunning Annick (Elsa
Zylberstein). The sentimental glow cast upon this episode by Saville, never mind
Chris, is embarrassing, and the hint of why Chris could never have married
Annick is left undeveloped. It is better and easier for the filmmakers to
pretend along with Chris that, somehow, she really wanted to be the
mistress of an impecunious English photographer and would have regarded
marriage, as he did, as a kind of betrayal of radical principles. But she is too
interesting a person to be so boringly political (Chris, alas, is not), and so
her character and the scenes in which she figures so prominently are merely

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