The Invisible Circus

(USA 2001)
Rated R

Starring:
Jordana Brewster, Christopher Eccleston, Cameron Diaz, Blythe Danner

Director: Adam Brooks

Writing credits: Jennifer Egan (novel), Adam Brooks

Fine Line Features * 98 minutes

 

It's generally accepted that no one cares about a film's resonance to the critic's personal life. Sometimes, however, a film hits SO close to home that a little truth in advertising is in order. Even Roger Ebert slips occasionally, as in his review of HIGH FIDELITY. That said, it isn't every day one sees one's own family dynamic played out on the silver screen.

I have already confessed to finding anything in which Christopher Eccleston appears as mandatory viewing, which explains how I sat through GONE IN SIXTY SECONDS. When I heard he had been cast in the film adaptation of Jennifer Egan's novel, THE INVISIBLE CIRCUS, of course the book became mandatory reading. Little did I know that it might as well have been my own family about which Egan had written. This of course made Egan's odd little novel, replete with underdeveloped, cardboard characters, but magnificently-crafted prose, resonate more strongly than it would have otherwise.

W.P. Kinsella's SHOELESS JOE is an example of a book in which the use of metaphor is so exquisite, and its premise so preposterous, that it's impossible to believe it could be filmed; and yet this book became FIELD OF DREAMS. If Adam Brooks' adaptation of Egan's novel doesn't succeed quite so smashingly, it is nevertheless a well-crafted, worthy effort that often clarifies and enhances some of the muddiness of the novel's plot points.

It is 1976, and Phoebe O'Connor (Jordana Brewster) is at loose ends. Seemingly sleepwalking through life, she longs for "something real" to happen to her. She laments, "I spend too much time watching TV with my mom, and when I go out, I don't fit in." Haunted by the mysterious suicide in 1970 of Faith (Cameron Diaz), the older sister she idolized, she is aware that the death is a chapter which must be closed before she can begin to live her own life.

Phoebe's mother Gail (Blythe Danner), a devoted, if ineffectual mother who differs from Phoebe in that she is able to close the doors on the past, putting away the deaths of her husband and daughter, is horrified at the thought of her one remaining daughter traversing the same path as the one she lost. Yet Phoebe perseveres, taking for Europe, leaving a note assuring her mother that she'll return.

Once in Europe, Phoebe retraces Faith's steps, using the postcards her sister sent daily as a travel guide. Unable to find any clues, or sense her sister's presence the way she had planned, she looks up the boyfriend with whom Faith travelled to Europe. Said boyfriend, then called by the absurd nickname of Wolf, but now reverted to his given name Christopher, is now living a staid, upright life with a fiance who slightly resembles an older version of Faith, and a well-appointed flat in a tony section of Paris. Wolf too, it seems, has unresolved issues about Faith's death, and insists on accompanying Phoebe on her travels, leaving his fiance behind. The two travel through gorgeous sections of Portugal, embarking on an ill-advised but inevitable affair, before they both confront the truth. For Faith was involved in the violent destructive youth protest movement that churned through Europe in the late nineteen-sixties and early seventies, becoming involved in situations beyond her ability to understand, or handle, until it was too late.

Most films about "The Sixties" don't play well, mostly because the sixties don't replay well. It was a strange time that only made sense within its context, and after thirty-plus years, looks damn silly in retrospect. Brooks wisely downplays the decade itself, neither attacking nor glorifying it, using only a short montage of stock footage and showing only as much of Faith's adventures as required by the story. Depictions of sex and drug use are minimal. Some might say it's a way of caving into contemporary governmental pressures, but since these phenomena have already been well-documented, why sledgehammer the point? Only a scene in which Phoebe drops a tab of acid and then hallucinates a vision of her dead sister telling her to "suffer to get to the other side" attempts to seriously address the drug issue, and seems clunky in the process. However, Brooks also, commendably, avoids the temptation to stock the film with vintage music designed solely to sell soundtrack CDs. After all, do we really need YET ANOTHER playing of The Youngbloods' "Get Together" or Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" in order to place a film in time context? For this is first and foremost a story not about historical context, but about sisters, and about a family, and about the wreckage left behind when a part of the constellation is removed.

THE INVISIBLE CIRCUS is a beautifully-photographed film, using its location shots in Amsterdam, Portugal and Paris to set a mood. The Amsterdam segments are muddy, almost sepia in tone, while Paris is largely shot in blues and grays. In Portugal, Henry Braham's cinematography cuts loose, suffising the countryside in a golden glow, reflecting Phoebe's irrational elation at the prospect of finally "finding" her sister at the location of her death.

In casting this film, Adam Brooks has assembled an extraordinarily strong ensemble. Jordana Brewster, a dark-haired beauty who is a dead ringer for a very young Ali McGraw, has heretofore only been notably seen in the teen horror flick THE FACULTY. Yet here she shows some real acting chops. If she is a bit more attractive than the self-doubting Phoebe has any right to be, she strongly resembles Egan's description in the novel, and effectively portrays the lost quality of a sister who has always lived in the shadow of a flashy elder sibling, and now finds herself with no shadow in which to live.

Christopher Eccleston has made a career out of playing brooding, haunted characters like Wolf, and no one, not even Ralph Fiennes (whom the film's poster artists have carefully airbrushed Eccleston's image to strongly resemble), does them better. With his gaunt features and lupine teeth, he also would be perfectly cast, were it not for the fact that at thirty-seven and looking somewhat north of forty here, he seems a tad too old, particularly in the scenes that take place in 1969-70. In the 1996 BBC miniseries OUR FRIENDS IN THE NORTH, Eccleston effortlessly portrayed his character from age nineteen to late middle-age, but here, sporting what appears to be his old Nicky Hutchinson wig from that series, he looks like an aging man in hippie hair extensions. But as a man still struggling with old pain and guilt, a closed-up man forced to reveal piece-by-piece more than he ever wanted to, he humanizes Wolf beyond just a one-dimensional repentant hippie.

In the flashback scenes, Cameron Diaz reveals herself to be a character actress in a model's body, rather than the movie star she is slated to be. Faith is a difficult character to portray, because from today's vantage point, a teenager involved in dousing diplomatic dinners with feathers, then graduating to planting bombs, all the while saying, "...aMAzing things are happening," just looks silly and deluded. But if Faith's blame of multinational corporations for her father's death from leukemia sounds nutty, Diaz manages to make us understand why FAITH believes it real.

The smaller roles are also perfectly cast. Blythe Danner, who unfortunately has only been working as much as she deserves since her far less talented daughter became a star, is warm and somewhat doughty as Phoebe's mother Gail, a woman who also had to live in the shadow of her own daughter, but whose ability to compartmentalize her heart has made her better able to cope than her younger daughter. As the young Phoebe, Camilla Belle is charming and delightful; and bears such a strong resemblance to Jordana Brewster that at times the grown-up Phoebe actually appears to be portrayed by the younger actress.

Adam Brooks' screenplay manages to retain most of the book's plot points. Some of the novel's initial setup of Phoebe's feelings of paralysis are missing, and would have helped us understand her character better. The affair between Phoebe and Wolf, which in the novel goes on for ten pages as the least gynecological sex scene ever written, is supposed to be an explosive, inevitable coupling that occurs primarily to banish the aura of death that permeates this strange relationship. As filmed, the scene conveys an obviously uncomfortable reticence on the part of the director in portraying this May/August relationship, and therefore seems at best gratuitous, and at worst makes Wolf/Christopher look like a man in midlife crisis trying to rewrite the past by boffing his dead lover's baby sister. Yet the Big Climactic Revelatory Scene, which in the novel lands with a thud, actually plays more strongly as filmed, largely a testament to the three actors' understanding of their characters' motivations.

Opening with a slow-motion shot of Cameron Diaz dancing on the ledge from which she jumped to meet her death, THE INVISIBLE CIRCUS is at times reminiscent of HIDEOUS KINKY, which will inevitably be described as a companion piece. Yet this film rages against the self-indulgent waste of the character at its core, rather than celebrating it. To interpret it as "yet another movie about the sixties" is both missing the point, and does the film a disservice.

Oh. And I'm happy to report that my own sister is alive and well.

- Jill Cozzi

THE INVISIBLE CIRCUS official site

 

If you liked this film, check out:
Hideous Kinky
Waking the Dead

 

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