Dark drama behind the faade of the commonplace

DAVID Hare, the writer and director of ``Wetherby,'' thinks of it as a unique movie -- ``a genre of its own,'' he called it during a recent conversation I had with him. Actually, it's not that original. Other works have explored its central idea: that dark, dramatic doings may lurk behind the sleepy faade of an undistinguished town. Many a writer has suggested, too, that loneliness and repressed sexuality can erupt in acts of aggression or self-destruction.

The fractured, back-and-forth structure of ``Wetherby'' also has precedents, such as the dream-drama ``Providence'' that Alain Resnais directed some years ago.

What is notable about ``Wetherby'' is the sense of conviction with which Hare probes his characters, whose lives are shaken when a new acquaintance commits an act of self-directed violence. Although some of the film's action is explicitly shocking, Hare's view of human nature is sensitive enough to insist that even the smallest and most commonplace lives are teeming with significance and interest, if we just bother to look.

``People aren't nearly as ordinary as they may seem,'' he told me, and his film bears out his sincerity. It also goes beyond simplistic explanations for the solitude and uncertainty that plague many of its figures -- looking into their roots in the British class system and educational establishment, for instance.

Hare says he embarked on ``Wetherby'' to explore the problem of loneliness with a drama that was more intuitive than ``willed.''

He also wanted to counter Hollywood's way of treating sexuality ``as a matter of titillation and display.'' His own tactics sometimes veer in similar directions (he's not above exploiting sexuality and violence himself), and the film's constant shifts of tone and perspective are sometimes more trouble than they're worth.

Yet with its moody rhythms and strong performances (by Vanessa Redgrave and Ian Holm, among others), it's a promising debut film from a man associated with the theater until now.

Also important is the fact that ``Wetherby'' was produced on a modest million-pound budget by a ``creative conglomerate'' with seven members, including Hare, who believe in complete artistic freedom for filmmakers. The ever-shaky British film industry stands to benefit much if this group continues to support independent cinema that takes itself and its audience seriously.

Hare will next be represented on screen by a film version of his hit play ``Plenty,'' directed by Fred Schepisi and starring Meryl Streep.

``Wetherby'' is rated R, reflecting brief but graphic encounters with sex and violence.

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