Aside from publicity and/or politics, what could have been the reason for a mass-circulation event-oriented newspaper’s omission of Sally Potter’s newest from its list of “40 best (or at least most noteworthy)” among Tribeca Film Festival’s excessive two-hundred-fifty-four features and shorts? The former dancer, choreographer, performance artist, theater director, documentarian and singer-songwriter is best known for Orlando (1992), her ambitious version of the Virginia Woolf novel long considered unadaptable.
Quietly titled Yes, with no Macaulay Culkin intonation, her filmscript was begun following 9/11, born of a desire to counteract demonization of the Other. As an antidote to fear and loathing, Potter “turned to love and to verse (and to humor)” -- the latter less notably -- and pictured a dark Lebanese man and blonde North Irishwoman raised in the United States, natives of strife-torn countries. After a five-minute evaluation filming, the two characters were fleshed out and subplots developed.
Although there is way too much of cinematic, and even literary, trickery, the center is simple and the result a contrast to the elaborate visual and aural sumptuousness of the “love poem” of thirteen years ago. Individuals, protagonists “She” (Joan Allen) and “He” (Armenian Simon Abkarian, in his first English-language lead) are yet universalized, a lapsed Catholic who questions the existence of God but speaks to Him about death, and an Arab whose religious beliefs are amorphous. And if diplomatic difficulties arose regarding Beirut and Havana location work, and the woman’s husband Anthony (Northern Ireland-born Sam Neill) is a British politician, still politics is not paramount and, it must be observed, the calm hero’s hundred-and-eighty about-face not justified by the single (on-screen) experience of European xenophobia.
Negatively, the self-conscious cinematography is a nuisance. So, too, are the several charwomen who briefly shrug into the camera and, particularly, the East End cleaning lady (Shirley Henderson) who opens, closes and in-between lectures us about hidden dirt, i.e., secrets, and ineradicable viruses, intimating a chain of being from microscope-small to socially, politically, cosmically large. It takes some minutes, too, to catch and penetrate the speech -- a dishwasher’s clipped Glaswegian remains Greek to the end -- and to realize that this is rhyme, loose iambic pentameter about which the actors’ instructions were to consider meaning over sound.
The tale is sensual despite a lack of naked skin -- his whispers at an upscale bar, and her reaction, are more erotic than loads of visible flesh -- but opens on a childless, terminally loathing couple. Put-upon, formal and misunderstood, Anthony philanders while molecular biologist She globetrots to conferences, indulges pouty goddaughter Grace (Stephanie Leonidas), jogs, swims, seethes. Lonely with her husband at a society dinner, she is spied and sweet-talked by a dashing dinner-jacketed man. After a day in the park, they make love in his apartment, She melting for emotional and physical attention, He attentive, funny and charming. He now slices vegetables as a cook, rather than flesh as a former surgeon in his country, which he left ten years before when fanatics threatened him for treating non-believers.
Their relationship blossoms as, cinematic distractions and all, their love grows on us and is reinforced by the daring rhyme. Further isolated by best friend Grace’s mother’s (Samantha Bond) self-pitying jealousy, She increasingly fulfills herself in the affaire. But, too quickly and unrealistically affected by a flare-up at work, He tearfully turns on pale Western complexions and wants to end it, go home to “my noble ancestry . . . my name.” A cell-phone call interrupting their parking-lot quarrel, She must leave for Ireland and her dying, freethinker, Socialist, Fidel-fan Auntie (Sheila Hancock).
Reflecting Woolf’s literary technique and Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, voice-overs are integrated, not as currently fashionable lazy exposition, but as thoughts that are continued aloud in conversation; obviously outside such dialogue, comatose Auntie’s voiced brogue is only in the niece’s head and urges her to go to Cuba. She will do so, after calling him in Lebanon and sending a Havana ticket. “There’s only one life, let’s seize the time.”
To Afro-Cuban and Arab music and dance, She and He will rethink, assess and find freedom as individuals. “I am me” -- before Western/Middle Eastern, Irish-American/Arab, blonde/brunet. Holding to a moment in the flow, just Woman and Man.
(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated "R" for language and some sexual content.)