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MOVIE REVIEW

Winslet's longing is at heart of keenly acted 'Children'

Much of Todd Field's choice new comic drama ``Little Children " concerns an affair between two young married people languishing in a mostly white Massachusetts suburb. Sarah (Kate Winslet) is a harried stay-at-home mom. Brad (Patrick Wilson) is her extremely handsome paternal counterpart. (She's a failed academic. He can't pass the bar exam.) They meet on a playground, after a trio of Brad-brained mothers dares Sarah to get his phone number.

The timing is good since he's feeling increasingly worthless at home. His knockout wife (Jennifer Connelly) makes successful documentaries and favors their son over Brad. (``He's perfect," she coos as he sleeps between them, meaning, of course, that her husband is not.)

What ``Little Children" understands so well, and so poignantly, is a kind of parental existentialism that hits 30- somethings with kids: How does having children make you such a less interesting adult?

In building this affair, Field's movie, which he adapted with Tom Perrotta from Perrotta's exceptional 2001 novel, comes tantalizingly close to greatness. The first half of the picture is narrated -- by Will Lyman, the voice of ``Frontline" -- in serious, sonorous cadences that are put to borderline-surreal use. It's as if National Geographic had produced Rod Serling's ``Twilight Zone" monologues for NFL Films.

The effect might have to be seen to be appreciated, but it gives the movie a rich critical distance on what we're watching.

Field uses Perrotta's prose as an anthropological play-by-play. But as he demonstrated in his film ``In the Bedroom," another astute adaptation of a fine piece of fiction, Field understands how to bring out the human core of his material (he tells and shows). The narration is a tool that doesn't cost the movie its emotional resonance. And some images are allowed to speak for themselves.

In one beautiful, crystallizing moment, Sarah looks up longingly from the shimmering town pool where she and Brad contrive to meet (kids in tow) and realizes all she could have with this man. Even though the moment is blinding and the glow fleeting, it feels explosively real to her.

Then, into the pool jumps the film's other major character, a convicted pedophile named Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), whose release back into the community has the whole neighborhood righteously on edge. An ex-cop (Noah Emmerich) heads up a concerned citizens group that hands out fliers warning that Ronnie's back. In a chilling, funny scene, Ronnie, a compact fellow blessed (or cursed?) with Haley's powerfully insinuating face, heads under the child-infested waters. Someone spots the tube of his snorkel cutting between the underage splashers, and the ensuing panic is like the first time a dorsal fin is spotted in ``Jaws."

In Perrotta's novel, the story of Ronnie shares a moral tether with Sarah and Brad's affair. Ronnie is publicly scorned as a matter of the suburb's willful distraction from the other transgressions afoot. He's a repository for everybody's hateful hypocrisy: Who could be worse than a child molester?

In Field's movie, the character serves a vaguer function. He's still a bogeyman, but, before long, his presence starts exposing the script's strained mechanics.

That ex-cop terrorizing Ronnie at the home of his mother, a grizzled force of unconditional love played by Phyllis Somerville, happens to be the captain of the touch football league Brad joins. Perrotta and Field work diligently to make the Ronnie business feel of a piece with the rest of the picture, but it never does . So the movie gets into serious trouble when it tries to tie up that story .

Until the collapse, Field, an actor himself, gets affecting, subtle work from his cast. Wilson is very good in a part most actors would have played as a cipher. Brad's self-disappointment is uniquely ironic (a good-looking and upbeat guy who feels like a loser). On paper, that's clear, but it's tough to act. Yet Wilson does for the smile what Baskin-Robbins did for ice cream: There are a lot of flavors.

Winslet carefully handles Sarah's marital exasperation and uncorked desire. But once the trysts start and the character becomes more outwardly emotive, you miss the moony sense of wonder the actor puts across with glances and mumbles.

In other words, the performance is better when the character is dreamy or defensive -- no more so than during a scene in which Winslet harangues her fellow ``Madame Bovary" readers at a book club meeting. In that scene, you sense that Sarah's life depends on her affair.

For her, it's a means of escape. For Brad, it's partly a matter of narcissism. Yet the sense of self-rediscovery they retreat into is mutual: This is who I was. Field presents this awakening in two great moments of self-regard, as both characters gaze longingly at themselves in their bathroom mirrors.

Ultimately, ``Little Children" builds a world in which neighborly judgment keeps the rest of this envious, repressed community from exploding with further incivility. Secrets and lies maintain the social order, the guilty are damned, and adulterous fantasies keep the ache of reality at bay. If everybody in this town took as long a look in the mirror as Sarah and Brad, can you imagine the hell that would break loose?

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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