New ideas, new inventions, new fashions, new freedoms. A world on the verge of incredible medical and technological breakthroughs, yet still struggling with timeless bugaboos such as poverty, prejudice, and overpopulation. A rising tide of intolerance toward immigrants. Cynics, mystics, reactionaries, and charlatans vying for power, publicity, and pocket money. Men and women struggling to break free of the gender roles of the past. Science advancing faster than people's ability to understand its ramifications. Revolutionary new modes of communication and entertainment. America, 1995? Try England, 1899.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. British writer-director Stephen Poliakoff's stubbornly original yet strangely unmoving new film, Century, captures the giddy sense of possibility in the air at the dawn of a new hundred years, and positions itself as the first film to give us an idea of what to expect as we prepare to enter the third millennium.
Century is several stories rolled into one: young man struggles to make good in the big city. Boy meets girl (from different sides of the tracks). Idealist encounters the real world. Illustrious physician with a god complex goes too far. Gung-ho worker discovers evil deeds at his place of employment and must decide whether to blow the whistle or sell out. Eager student clashes with brilliant mentor. Father and son learn mutual respect. And therein lies this film's principal problem: Century can't decide what it wants to be.
The year 1900 does not get off to an auspicious beginning for Mr. Reisner (an endearingly daft and unflaggingly optimistic Robert Stephens), a Romanian Jewish emigre to England with a successful business career in Scotland behind him. His new neighbors shun his elaborately planned New Year's Eve party, and the following day his only son, Paul (Clive Owen), sets off for London to take a position as a medical researcher with the Whitewater Institute, a job regarded with suspicion verging on outright derision by the establishment.
Upon arrival at the institute, Paul is mortified equally by the decrepitude of his workplace and the quackery being practiced by his fellow doctors. The newcomer immediately establishes himself as ambitious, outspoken, and not very tactful, which alienates some of his co-researchers and endears him to others. His brashness and keen intelligence quickly come to the attention of Professor Mandry (Charles Dance, who looks like an English Timothy Busfield but, thankfully, doesn't act like one), who takes the rising star on as his protege.
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Meanwhile Paul learns about love from a feisty lab assistant named Clara (Miranda Richardson), who proves to be Paul's intellectual equal, if not superior. Their relationship starts off along traditional lines A they antagonize each other A but takes some interesting turns. Soon Paul champions a potential diabetes cure dreamed up by one of his colleagues, but Mandry inexplicably delays acting on it. When Paul's insistence on pressing the professor convinces Mandry to dismiss him, Clara lets Paul stay with her. Suddenly the doctor is dependent upon the lab assistant to continue his research, just as the man is dependent upon the woman to keep a roof over his head and food on the table. It's a nice little role reversal that keeps the relationship from becoming too predictable.
Out of sorts and out of favor, Paul takes to treating indigents to keep busy. (One of the things that rings false about the movie is the makeshift shantytown Poliakoff plops down in the middle of a field. Perhaps it would have been too expensive to build an authentic-looking set within the city of London itself, but this oddball encampment feels phony. Besides, would a doctor who lives in a rundown tenement building in the heart of what was affectionately known as the City of Rubbish need to travel so far to find sufficient numbers of destitute paupers in need of medical attention?) Paul discovers that Mandry has a dark secret and a hidden agenda, things only Paul can expose. How he proceeds will impact not only the lives of Mandry's impoverished patients and Paul's future in medical research, but also his relationship with his father and his future with Clara.
Century is a sweeping period movie with too many bristles missing from its broom. Poliakoff is more successful at evoking the excitement, worry, and hope that attend the dawn of a new century than he is at making Paul's dilemma compelling or Mandry's beastly behavior believable. Paul and Clara's love story enjoys some refreshing, unorthodox moments, but much of it feels calculated to adhere to some unwritten standard for political correctness. Poliakoff devotes plenty of screen time to the bumpy relationship between the eccentric, overprotective father and the son determined to stand on his own feet, but the writer-director tells us next to nothing about Paul's sister, who stays at home with the old man. The omission speaks volumes about Poliakoff's true interest in exploring unconventional female characters.
Still, you want to like the film for its originality and its enterprise. Century succeeds in bringing a vitality to English period drama that sets it apart from mannered Merchant/Ivory productions and stuffy Masterpiece Theatre set pieces. Like Paul Reisner, Century comes from humble origins. Both the character and the movie are bright and clever and have high hopes for themselves. And even if they never quite attain the lofty goals they've set, at least they take a shot.