Richard Kwietniowski's first feature, Love and Death on Long Island, won't be every surfer babe's idea of a good time. But if you've got a taste for mordant wit, sharp observation and a whiff of personal liberation, step up and grab a ticket for this quirky, wonderfully surreal tale about a stuffy English novelist who falls hopelessly in love with a pea-brained American movie idol.
Sound vaguely familiar, world-lit buffs? That's because while the ostensible source of the film is a cult novel by Gilbert Adair, its real inspiration, twice removed, has to be Thomas Mann's sublime 1912 novella Death in Venice. As you recall, that's the story of one Gustav von Aschenbach, a terminally disciplined writer who succumbs to his love for a beautiful Polish boy, Tadzio, then dies of cholera.
Kwietniowski's update is rather less gloomy (and much less homoerotic) but almost as affecting. The novelist here is Giles De'Ath (nice play on words, no?), a tweedy, widowed Luddite whose lone concession to the twentieth century is the presence of a radio in his London home. Impeccably portrayed by England's John Hurt (1984), Giles can't tell the difference between a microwave and a TV set down at the appliance store, and he's so innocent of pop culture that he must ask: "What, exactly, is a 'sitcom'?"
Love and Death is rife with such delectable clashes of taste and style, but the very proper Mr. De'Ath is not exactly a fool. In fact, his apparati are all tuned up. Reluctantly, he goes to see the movie version of an E.M. Forster novel, wanders into the wrong theater and finds himself face-to-face with an abomination called Hot Pants II. It's low-budget, jiggle-butt teen trash from across the Atlantic, and Giles De'Ath might as well be watching the fall of Rome. But this cinematic travesty's mindless young star, Ronnie Bostock, stirs something in the author. In Ronnie (who else but Beverly Hills 90210 heartthrob Jason Priestly?), he finds pre-Raphaelite allure and classical beauty. In a trice, our literary relic becomes a connoisseur of the collected works of Ronnie Bostock--Skid Marks, Tex-Mex, Hot Pants II.
Next, America. As obsessed as Aschenbach, Giles De'Ath flies to New York to find "everything I have never been," then journeys out to suburban Long Island in pursuit of "beauty where one never thought of looking for it." Part stalker, part missionary, part solitary alien, Giles meets Ronnie by first charming his fiancee, Audrey (Fiona Loewi). How long can it be until the literary master and the fan magazines' designated "mega-dreamboat" are exchanging lines of dialogue from Ronnie's next epic?
Suffice it to recall Giles, complete with Cambridge accent, as he asks: "Hey, dude. How's it hanging?"
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Need we say that the boy, thickheaded as he is, lets just a flash of Giles De'Ath's desperate light into his soul? Or that Jason Priestly may never find another role so suitable?
This canny, unpredictable film is at once a tribute to the purity of love, the seductive power of movies and--best of all--the endurance of farce. That's not a bad trifecta for a moviemaker born in Britain, schooled at Berkeley, on his first outing.
Love and Death on Long Island.
Written and directed by Richard Kwietniowski. With John Hurt, Jason Priestly and Fiona Loewi.