Effective `Antidrama'

FILM: REVIEW

THERE'S a kind of film-story that differs radically from standard dramatic plots, but rarely gets enough credit for its refreshingly offbeat qualities. I call it the antidrama - the story that seems to be heading for a typical dramatic crisis or climax, but refuses to ``pay off'' in the usual movie way. A great example is ``Tender Mercies,'' about a recovering alcoholic who doesn't go back to the bottle.

What's captivating about these pictures is the way they generate more surprise than ordinary films - by steering away from heightened drama instead of toward it, happily breaking the very rules that feature-film intensity is supposed to rely on.

``Mr. & Mrs. Bridge,'' starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward as a well-to-do married couple in Kansas City during the 1930s and '40s, stands with the best films of this kind ever made. There isn't a shred of melodrama in it, or a hint of artificially contrived tension.

Yet it builds an extraordinary amount of emotional power through the rightness of its details, the strength of its best performances, and the rigorous beauty of its images. It marks a new artistic peak for director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who have worked as a team (under the Merchant Ivory Productions banner) for almost 30 years now, giving us memorable films ranging from ``Shakespeare Wallah'' to ``A Room With a View.''

If you've read ``Mrs. Bridge'' and ``Mr. Bridge,'' the brilliant Evan S. Connell novels that Ms. Jhabvala's screenplay is based on, you're probably surprised that anyone dreamed of turning them into a movie. They're minimalist works that make their points through subtlety and indirection, building their sly narratives through an accumulation of small details.

A chapter may focus on nothing larger than Mr. Bridge explaining car insurance to his wife, or attempting to play baseball with his son; or Mrs. Bridge working up the courage to ask her husband for some small favor he might not approve of.

Through such tiny incidents and a few more imposing ones, Mr. Connell paints a portrait of upper-middle-class life that's at once achingly sympathetic and devastatingly critical. At times he achieves a near-perfect synthesis of these attitudes, as when Mrs. Bridge dutifully remarks on what a ``time-saver'' frozen foods are - a seemingly inconsequential statement that has unexpectedly deep reverberations at this point in her story, since Mrs. Bridge has fallen into a life of excruciating boredom since her children grew up, and needs the opposite of time-savers to fill her empty days.

Her husband moves outside the home more often than she does, so his experiences are more worldly. What matters is not his professional activity, however - of which we hear little - but rather the complexities and ironies of his inner life.

The filmmakers have turned Connell's delicately written books into a successful movie by taking them on their own terms - adding no dramatic scenes or narrative twists, but allowing the Bridges to evolve as real and recognizable people through events that often have little meaning in themselves. This was a deliberate strategy on the filmmakers' part - when I spoke with Mr. Ivory recently, he cheerfully acknowledged that the film has few ``scenes'' in the ordinary sense. The decision to avoid normal rules of movie construction sets up enormous challenges for the director and writer, who must elicit the audience's involvement by means other than steadily building conflict, tension, or suspense. Ivory and his colleages meet the challenge splendidly.

Credit for this goes to the cast as well as the filmmakers. Ms. Woodward gives a finely tuned performance as Mrs. Bridge, evoking the character's habitual vagueness and confusion - as well as her positive qualities of friendliness, loyalty, and so forth - without a trace of condescension. Mr. Newman makes a solid Mr. Bridge, although he overplays the character's rigidity; when he portrays an aging person, Newman tends to ``play old'' in a visible and self-conscious way, even when the character isn't much older than himself. The excellent supporting cast includes Blythe Danner as a close friend of Mrs. Bridge, and Austin Pendelton in a superb portrayal of an art instructor fallen on hard times.

The film is rated PG-13, reflecting glimpses of the sexual activity that's not entirely absent from the Bridge household.

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