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Friday, July 30, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Moira Macdonald
Michael Cunningham's novel "A Home at the End of the World" (written several years before "The Hours" made him a well-known name) takes us through the decades as an ever-shifting slow dance of friendship: first a duo, then a trio and finally a trio plus one.
It's a subtle work that takes its time with its characters, particularly the two at its center: childlike Bobby, wounded by losing his brother and mother too soon, and brittle, lonely Jonathan. The boys grow up together in 1960s Cleveland, under the loving eye of Jonathan's mother, Alice. As children do, they eventually move away, later reuniting in New York with a third friend, Claire.
Though romantic and sexual attachments form fleeting alliances in this group (Bobby and Jonathan experiment sexually as teens; Claire and Bobby have an affair which results in a child), it's really a story of companionship, of people exploring their necessity to each other. At times, Michael Mayer's film made me think of Thomas McCarthy's underrated "The Station Agent," in the way it creates an unusual kind of family, a three-of-us-against-the-world bond of affection and a celebration of ensemble acting.
But "A Home" has a real problem, and it comes from a surprising source: Cunningham himself. The author wrote his first screenplay adaptation for this film ("The Hours" was adapted by playwright David Hare), and while the characters definitely live on the pages of his novel, they don't quite make it unscathed to the screen.
In a novel, there's more room for nuance, for dwelling on the tiny details and impressions that make up a life. On screen, things must by necessity be condensed by focusing in, by deciding what part of the story to tell, by choosing key moments. And somehow, Cunningham's adaptation leaves the soul of some of his characters behind. Jonathan (Dallas Roberts) is especially problematic: We don't quite understand where his occasional rage comes from. And Robin Wright Penn's theatrical Claire, with her vintage clothes and ever-changing hair, never seems quite real; the character on screen is arty rather than artful.
Nonetheless, Mayer's film is never less than watchable and often quite moving, especially when Colin Farrell (as Bobby) or Sissy Spacek (Alice) are on screen. Both are performers of great warmth; both can create dialogue without words.
Farrell, a legendary bad-boy off screen, is quiet and soulful here; becoming the film's heart and its home.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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