Coquette Duet

In The Year My Voice Broke, director John Duigan showed a feel for what Wordsworth called the "visionary dreariness" of a certain kind of rural landscape -- rolling hills bare except for occasional clusters of giant rocks or the isolated gnarled tree -- a landscape short on conventional picturesqueness that nonetheless seems charged with presence and meaning in ways obscurely linked to our deepest feelings. The hills around the home of young Danny Embling (Noah Taylor) are a memory book on whose pages his first deep attachments inscribe themselves; and they will endure, the last shot of that film tells us, long after the people who first called on his capacity for love and friendship have gone out of his life.

Flirting, the second film in a projected trilogy that began with The Year My Voice Broke, thrusts Danny into a new setting, a posh boarding school called St. Albans, where, it is hoped, the institutionalized sadism that masquerades as discipline will beat the "delinquent" tendencies out of him. If you've seen The Year My Voice Broke, you'll know what those tendencies amounted to -- a penchant for bonding with kids (and adults) who were, like himself, outsiders in his hometown. His delinquency, in short, was loyalty to what was in many ways a worthier community.

At St. Albans Danny's personal history repeats itself. There's a delicious irony in the way everything about the school -- its classy atmosphere, its Anglophile snobbery, and above all its pretentions to culture (the students stage debates with students at Cirencester, a nearby girls' school, on propositions like "intellectual pursuits are the highest form of human activity") -- conspires to make the imaginative, well-read, sharp-witted Danny even more of an outsider than he was at home.

Not that Danny doesn't in some ways court his outsider status: At a rugby match, surrounded by classmates yelling themselves blue in the face in support of their team, Danny keeps his nose buried in a book, looking up only long enough to be smitten by a passing Cirencester student, Thandiwe Adjewa (Thandie Newton), a Ugandan whose father, an activist political scientist, is a visiting professor at an Australian university. Like Danny, she's an outsider, persecuted by her Heatheresque, lily-white classmates under the leadership of the school's most beautiful, most popular, etc., etc. student, Nicola Radcliffe (Nicole Kidman).

At first skeptical about Danny -- she's seen enough of the world to know that the tokens of individualism don't always go with the substance -- Thandiwe finally learns to accept him at face value, and the two of them forge an alliance that threatens to turn the good order -- and good reputation -- of their respective schools upside down. With Thandiwe Danny experiences the first love that almost came his way in The Year My Voice Broke, and while they scarcely get beyond the kind of action suggested by the film's title (there's a little partial nudity in the film), it's clear that their relationship is more than a flirtation.

"Flirting" has other resonances, too, I suppose, that make it a suitable title for Duigan's film. Thandiwe and Danny flirt with expulsion when they meet in his dorm room during a school dance -- he's been excluded from the evening's mild, tightly chaperoned activities for having too long hair -- and Danny flirts with a fair amount of bodily harm when he gets into the boxing ring with his school's leading athlete over a nasty joke that's been played on him (Duigan is superb at capturing the often thoughtless cruelty of adolescence). With its connotations of courtship and risk, with its sense of incompleteness, suspension -- flirting with what? -- it neatly captures the spirit of Duigan's film -- by turns affectionate and audacious, mocking and tender.

Some films about adolescence don't seem to know what to make of their protagonists but feel obliged to make a point about them all the same. Is their rebellion something to laugh at or a cause for alarm? Are their attachments serious or "just a phase"? John Hughes's teen-centered films often suffer from an instability of tone, veering from slapstick to sentiment; too often you're aware that the action is being watched, choreographed by an adult who's itching to serve up some kind of "statement" -- as if to demonstrate his essentially "responsible" attitude to any adults who might be happening to watch his film.

Duigan's film is subtler and more revelatory than that. With a novelist's sensitivity to atmosphere, he counterpoints the phony "civilization" of St. Albans and Cirencester with the wild otherness of nature. Seen by night, the slightly fantastic Victorian-Gothic buildings are almost swallowed up in the dark, murmuring forest or seem to float magically on the broad, tranquil lake between the two schools; it's an enchanted setting that lends substance to Danny and Thandiwe's escapades, which themselves become the center of an elaborate structure of games and deceptions shared by the other kids in a concert of resistance to the school's shallow, petty authorities.

And as in The Year My Voice Broke, Duigan gives even his minor characters surprising, telling touches of nature. Meeting Thandiwe's parents after a performance of the schools' annual play, a slightly weird musical version of the myth of Persephone dreamed up by one of the artier teachers at Cirencester, Danny's parents have an awkward moment that's suddenly dissolved, much to their confusion, by a few kind, humane words from Thandiwe's father; the unexpected grace of the moment cuts through layers of misunderstanding and bigotry that 90 minutes of shrill and self-righteous denunciation would have left intact.

In the course of their relationship, Danny learns from Thandiwe that there's a larger world out there, one in which individual lives get caught up in the forces of history. It's no coincidence that in The Year My Voice Broke the larger world was mostly represented by escapist movies and fantasies about alien spacecraft while in Flirting that role is taken over by books about Africa and images from the television evening news. The third film in the trilogy, we are told, will take Danny out of his teens and out of Australia to the Paris where his current intellectual hero, Jean-Paul Sartre, lives. Shooting has been postponed to let young Noah Taylor, whose performance in Flirting earned him a Best Actor award from the Australian Critics' Circle, age enough to play an adult convincingly. As judged by the two films already made, it will be something well worth waiting for.

Directed by John Duigan; with Noah Taylor, Thandie Newton, and Nicole Kidman.

Not rated.


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