Entertainment Movies

Saturday 18 November 2017

Suffering NY teachers' detached tale

Paul Whitington


(15A, limited release, 100 minutes)

Director: Tony Kaye Stars: Adrien Brody, James Caan, Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu, Sami Gayle


Seekers of hope and optimism should look elsewhere than Tony Kaye's Detachment, a gleefully and gratuitously miserablist drama set in a rundown American school.

Kaye, whose previous credits include American History X and the memorably graphic abortion documentary Lake of Fire, seems determined to take the dimmest possible view of human nature, and, in Detachment, he pulls out all the stops to hammer home his gloomy thesis.

Even the film's hero may have mixed motives, but at least he's powerfully portrayed by the talented but sometimes miscast Adrien Brody.

He is Henry Barthes, a dedicated but rather remote substitute teacher who takes up a temporary posting at an embattled New York school.

Despite its dedicated staff, the school is in a parlous state; order is dissolving in the classrooms, many of the exhausted teachers are close to burning out and the principal, Carol Dearden (Marcia Gay Harden) is about to be fired because of declining grades.

When Henry first meets his classes, he's instantly confronted by several angry students. But he gets rid of the worst troublemaker and slowly begins to talk the class around and interest them in learning.

This being a Kaye film, the children, without exception, are from appalling backgrounds, and one of Henry's best students, a shy and talented girl called Meredith who's bullied and ridiculed by her father, develops an unhealthy obsession with her teacher.

Not content with saving the inner city kids, the saintly and ascetic-looking Henry also rescues a girl called Erica (Sami Gayle) from the horrors of teenage prostitution. When Erica offers him a blow job on a bus, Henry becomes worried about what will happen to her, and allows her to share his cramped apartment.

Erica is transformed from a foulmouthed hooker into a kind and sweet-natured girl who dreams of a brighter future with her knight in shining armour. But Henry is a constitutional commitment-phobe, and visits to his troubled grandfather and a series of disturbing flashbacks hint at a dysfunctional childhood.

Detachment's fine cast includes Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu, William Petersen and James Caan, who's excellent as a sarcastic, pill-popping veteran teacher.

And the film's visual style, with lots of impressionistic nocturnal shots and the odd animated interlude, is undeniably ambitious.

But this feels more like a film with an unshakable agenda than a believable drama, moments that might have been moving are overcooked into the realm of melodrama, and the relentless cascade of misery feels contrived.

Brody, though, is very good, and almost manages to overcome the contradictions inherent in his silently suffering character.

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