wed 19/06/2019

Detachment | reviews, news & interviews

Detachment

Detachment

High drama and simplistic messages in Tony Kaye's schoolroom saga

Adrien Brody as Henry Barthes, avoiding emotional attachments

The lugubrious soulfulness of Adrien Brody is not to all tastes, and in many cases is wholly inappropriate, but his casting in Tony Kaye's downbeat meditation on education, or the lack of it, is masterly. Brody plays Henry Barthes, a substitute teacher drafted in to plug a temporary gap in a failing school in some unspecified American city. He has a natural gift for teaching, but by never taking up a permanent post he's able to avoid painful emotional attachments. He lingers just long enough to gives some of his pupils a glimpse of what learning actually means before snatching it away again.

Partly, Detachment is an unsettling examination of the American public school system, in which sullen, angry kids take it out on their teachers for what their parents aren't giving them at home (there's a telling scene where the school holds a parents' evening and nobody turns up). Most of the kids can't write, can only speak in expletives, and see the world in terms of physical violence and sexual threat. The school's corrosive air of hopelessness is all too effectively rendered.

The political and bureaucratic establishment is also held under a harsh spotlight in Carl Lund's script. Principal Carol Dearden (Marcia Gay Harden) is left in no doubt by the authorities that her pupils' poor exam results have earmarked her for the chop, regardless of her protests that the school has been used as a dumping ground for low achievers. Official cynicism scales new heights when Dearden and her teachers are informed that their sub-standard school is pushing down local property prices, so sheer economics dictate that root-and-branch change must be implemented (Brody, Blythe Danner and James Caan, pictured above).

So far, so gruelling, but Detachment undercuts its message by taking the sentimentality bait a little too eagerly. Under the circumstances, the way the empathetic Barthes is able to effect a loaves-and-fishes transformation in his classroom in a brief space of time is simply silly, while his late-night encounter with elfin teenaged hooker Erica (Sami Gayle) is the prelude to an almost Disney-like episode of heartwarming redemption. It's like Bambi Goes on the Game. Which isn't to denigrate Gayle's performance, which is as painfully touching as it's wildly implausible.

Director Kaye has crammed the piece with a wealth of supporting talent, so much so that some of them don't have quite enough to do. William Petersen flits tantalisingly in front of the lens a couple of times, while Blythe Danner as veteran pedagogue Ms Perkins hints at a back story we never get to see. James Caan fares better as another old-timer, Charles Seaboldt, and enjoys a bravura comic scene where he gets to deliver an "unfuck your shit" speech in several shades of thespian, though predominantly purple.  

Kaye has coaxed another fine juvenile performance from Betty Kaye as Meredith, the class fat girl with a secret artistic streak who gets picked on by the sneering boys, but pick of the bunch is Christina Hendricks (pictured above) as Sarah Madison, one of several battered emotional casualties of the school staff room. She strikes up a tentative relationship with Barthes, only to have it extinguished by the fog of dejection which hangs over the institution. Where Mad Men can't keep its eyes off Hendricks' Michelin Woman figure, Kaye just keeps filling the screen with her face, an instrument of stunning eloquence. It's high time somebody took the plunge and gave Hendricks a big starring role.

It's not an easy picture to sum up. It's part acting workshop, part confessional and part social commentary, with Brody's Barthes apt to drift off into pained soliloquies and home-movie flashbacks designed to illustrate how yesterday's childhood experiences inescapably define today's adult. Probably true, if over-simplistic, but this doesn't feel like quite the right medium for the message.

Watch trailer for Detachment

Most of the kids can't write, can only speak in expletives, and see the world in terms of physical violence and sexual threat

rating

Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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